Manchester United's Champions League hopes on a knife edge

Manchester United 0 PSV Eindhoven 0: Even in the halcyon years under Alex Ferguson, Manchester United players had a habit of making life difficult for themselves, a tendency which they appear hell bent on continuing with Louis van Gaal at the helm.
Manchester United's Champions League hopes on a knife edge

The Premier League side face a tricky visit to Wolfsburg in the final group game of their Champions League qualifying campaign next month knowing that anything less than victory could see them overtaken by their Dutch visitors last night and exit the competition.

While PSV host the unimpressive Moscow side CSKA in the final round of games, United must travel to Germany and face a team whose 2-0 victory in Russia yesterday afternoon placed van Gaal’s team under increased pressure before kick-off at Old Trafford.

It was a challenge which an uninspired United failed to overcome and, on an evening in which the home supporters paid a moving seventh minute tribute to the late George Best by shining thousands of phone lights, the current owner of the number seven jersey, former PSV forward Memphis Depay, continued to disappoint in his efforts to live up to one of the most illustrious shirts in football.

The game summed up so much of Manchester United’s season of late, the hosts firmly in control at the back but lacking the quality and decision making to make their superior possession tell in the final third.

Louis van Gaal’s initial attacking intentions could not be questioned, with four out-and-out offensive players at that top end of the field, but too many poor decisions - inappropriate “dummies” and poor controlling touches - saw United run into blind alleys.

Thankfully, for neutrals if not United supporters and the hamstring of PSV’s Luciano Narsingh, after a stale opening, injury to the visiting forward forced manager Phillip Cocu to bring on substitute Gaston Pereiro after 18 minutes and, as the Uruguayan settled into his surroundings, the Dutch side showed greater promise.

Soon after Pereiro’s introduction, Wayne Rooney’s low, drilled cross was dummied by Anthony Martial, much to the surprise of Jesse Lingard whose first touch let him down before Daley Blind’s right-wing corner was met by Morgan Schneiderlin whose effort from the six-yard line lacked the power to force the ball past goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet on his line.

PSV parried and thrust back with Davy Propper launching a counter which ended with Luuk de Jong setting up Jorrit Hendrix for a curling shot which David de Gea saved smartly to keep out.

Thus had the contest improved, considerably, as a spectacle and United’s attacking play was improving with it - although not enough to break the deadlock before the interval.

Martial came closest to achieving that. First, after Lingard’s shot broke kindly for him, his first-time strike was well saved by the outstretched leg of Zoet and then, with the seconds ticking down, his well-executed near-post shot drew an equally impressive save from the goalkeeper.

In short, it was not hard to see how United have remained undefeated in the eight games since their humiliating reverse at Arsenal but similarly easy to understand why van Gaal has yet to win over so much of the United fan base given the manner in which his team have been grinding out those positive results.

Lingard was the exception, his recent England call-up looking all the more justified with every passing week and the continued development of the 22-year-old. Direct, determined and pacy, Lingard showed greater thrust than his colleagues and looked the best hope of a break to the stalemate.

It was a similar pattern after the restart with Lingard again the focal point of United’s first noteworthy attack as he connected with Martial’s right-wing cross and guided his header agonisingly beyond the far post; the home team’s momentum continuing seconds later when Martial himself managed to steer a shot through bodies from the edge of the area, forcing Zoet into another decent stop.

It was a promising, and significantly more direct, approach to the second half from van Gaal’s team but one which had run out of steam by the hour mark, prompting van Gaal to bring on Ashley Young, in place of the ineffective Memphis, and Marouane Fellaini, in an effort to add yet more thrust up front.

Almost immediately, Young hurled over two dangerous crosses that placed the Dutch defence under pressure, but only after Propper had displayed superb footwork to control the ball and half-volley a long-range shot which tested de Gea.

Blind’s well-weighted pass then sent Young scurrying to the by-line to produce a cross which deflected invitingly into the path of Lingard who rushed his attempt woefully off target from eight yards but United and their supporters were growing more anxious.

That anxiety would not be eased and will, surely, only increase when they now face that nerve-testing match day six in Germany.

MANCHESTER UNITED (4-2-3-1):

De Gea 6; Darmian 7 (Mata 84), Smalling 7, Blind 6, Rojo 6; Schweinsteiger 6 (Fellaini 58, 5), Schneiderlin 5; Lingard 8, Rooney 6, Memphis 5 (Young 58, 7); Martial 6. Subs (not used): Wilson, Romero, McNair, Pereira.

PSV EINDHOVEN (4-3-3):

Zoet 8, Arias 6, Bruma 7, Moreno 6, Brenet 7; Guardado 9, Hendrix 7 (Isimat-Mirin 60, 6), Propper 7; Narsingh 5 (Pereiro 18, 8), de Jong 6, Locada 6. Subs (not used): Schaars, Maher, Poulsen, Pasveer, Bergwijn.

Referee:

P Kralovec 7

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