OLD TRAFFORD — Man Utd 0-1 Real Sociedad (Mendez 59′)
It seems strange to suggest the Champions League’s all-time top goalscorer would have to audition to win his place back in any side, but that is what Cristiano Ronaldo was tasked with at Old Trafford last night.
On a surreal occasion given the news of the Queen’s passing less than 90 minutes from kick-off, the encounter was always going to be a subdued one, but with a job still to do, Erik ten Hag shuffled his pack, gave starts to three players who needed them – Casemiro, Harry Maguire and Ronaldo. To rather limited success.
Ronaldo especially, forced to stay at United somewhat against his will, needed to make his point. How could a new manager come in and drop him, one of the greatest players in history, and think he can be successful?
Ninety minutes later, and Ten Hag is the one who had made his point after a Ronaldo-fronted United slumped to defeat in their Europa League opener against Real Sociedad. Perhaps his version of United, one who had come into the clash on the back of four successive wins, is best placed without their veteran superstar slowing up the play after all.
It was an unusual experience to be inside the stadium on such a solemn night. There was no music, no advertising flashing on the electric boards that encircle the pitch, no teams were read out, nothing. Just one very matter-of-fact announcement that the sides were coming out onto the pitch before reverting to silence.
The crowd did their best to rouse their team after the official minute’s silence had been observed, but the match took a while to get going, understandably given the low-key introduction.
The changes Ten Hag made from the team that beat Arsenal with a high-energy, pressing display on Sunday won’t have helped, either. Especially when the man replacing two-goal hero Marcus Rashford didn’t seem to like being the understudy to come in on a Europa League night.
While a rejuvenated Rashford would be found making runs down the channel, Ronaldo time and again seemed unwilling to get on the end of a Christian Eriksen pick out, or drop deep to get involved in the build-up. He knew the cameras would be watching his every move, and he played up to such, making more exaggerated gestures than penetrative moves in and around the box.
Two changes for United at the interval gave the game the lift it needed, as did an improved Sociedad.
Clear chances, however, remained few and far between. So the Italian referee did his best to give the encounter a memorable moment, awarding a penalty for handball against another United substitute Lisandro Martinez. The shot came from a man no stranger to inflicting pain on the red half of Manchester – David Silva.
United can feel hard done by, given Martinez’s close proximity to Silva, and the fact it came up off his leg onto his arm. It would likely not have been given in the Premier League, but after events over the last week in the world of VAR, who knows?
Brais Mendez dispatched the penalty with ease, and that always felt like it was going to be that, even though there was half an hour still to go.
It may well have been down to the gravity of the day, but United just could not muster anything in response. As a result, the man supposed to be spearheading the attack grew more and more frustrated, sprawling to the ground in the search of a penalty that was never going to come.
As he lined up a free-kick in the latter stages of the contest, it appeared his moment, once again when not at his best, had come to snatch the headlines, but his tame effort went straight into the wall, to sum up his and United’s evening.
The likelihood of him starting United’s next match, whenever that may be, look slim. A final year in Manchester could turn out to be a miserable one for him, too.