Ralf Rangnick was asked after Manchester United’s victory over Tottenham on Saturday whether he thought his team could win the Champions League. It was all he could do not to laugh. After the funeral, in his words from him, that was the derby defeat at Manchester City the previous weekend, the question did not make sense, according to the interim manager.
Perhaps it is the hope that gets to people. Or the reality that United are a club that only seems to deal in the wildest of extremes. This was the night when it all came crashing back down, United’s flickers of promise ground into the dust by Atlético Madrid and the team given an extremely familiar sinking feeling on Europe’s grandest stage.
United have progressed only twice in the Champions League knockout rounds since their run to the final in 2011 and, in the final analysis over these two legs, they did not do enough. Trailing to Renan Lodi’s goal before half-time, they were charged with raising Atlético apart in the second half and they barely threatened. After the final whistle, Diego Simeone was pelted with bottles from the crowd as he ran towards the dressing room.
United knew their season was on the line. The battle for a top-four Premier League finish endures but what is the point of that if not to make an assault on the Champions League knockout rounds? The potential for glory had been in front of them and everybody inside Old Trafford could feel it – the excitement mixing with the nerves. The atmosphere pulsed.
The hosts were keen to set the right tone, getting on to the front foot and firing up the crowd, even if it was always going to be a balancing act. Rangnick had to be wary of Atlético’s counters, which was part of the reason why he went for Scott McTominay and Fred in front of the back four.
One thing that could be said without fear of contradiction was that United’s opening was better than it had been in Madrid and they were so close to translating their attacking expression into a goal.
Cristiano Ronaldo was everywhere at the outset, beginning with a keepy-uppy dribble and also driving to the byline at pace, winning a corner. It was his pass from him that released Bruno Fernandes in the 13th minute and, when the midfielder crossed, Anthony Elanga had timed his run to apply the close-range flicked finish. The ball smacked into Jan Oblak’s head and flew to safety. The goalkeeper knew nothing about it. Elanga had also gone close with a second-minute header.
United’s early confidence was reflected by Fred, who pulled off some outrageous tricks, none better than the touch into his standing foot close to the byline followed by the blast past his opponent. His cut-back from him led to nothing but United were making the game and it was enjoyable to watch.
The worry was that they had nothing to show for it and Atlético had certainly fired warning shots. Rodrigo De Paul extended David de Gea with a pot-shot for the top corner on 16 minutes while the excellent João Félix had a goal ruled out following Koke’s lovely pass and Marcos Llorente’s low cross. Llorente had strayed marginally offside.
The breakthrough goal followed Elanga shouting in vain for a foul by Reinildo Mandava as he raced up the right. There had been contact and so Elanga thought he would get the decision when he went down. I did not. Perhaps I have tumbled too late. It was no excuse, though, for how Diogo Dalot lost his bearings at the far post after Atlético went up to the other end, Antoine Griezmann crossing after a Félix backheel. Lodi tiptoed in, completely unmarked, to plant a header down and in.
United had finished the first half with Fernandes unloading from distance and Oblak turning behind and they simply had to find a way through after the interval.
This is not, perhaps, a classic Simeone team and the Madrid press had described them as being in crisis before the first leg, their title defense long since in tatters; the statistics showing six league defeats in a 10-game stretch. But there have since been four straight wins in the league; signs of a few of the old certainties coming back.
Atlético fought for every yard, with even their substitutes, who included Luis Suárez, getting in the way of a United throw-in up one of the sidelines. Simeone ordered every one of his players to stay behind the ball, to compress the space between the lines and United could feel the frustration mounting.
Elanga dragged wide at the start of the second period; Jadon Sancho fizzed a volley high. For Atlético, De Paul shot at De Gea after the goalkeeper, played into trouble by Harry Maguire, had misdirected a clearance.
United needed to keep the back door shut because Atlético continued to look threatening on the break. Maguire failed to inspire much confidence. But what they really needed, as Rangnick made his substitutions, including the introduction of Edinson Cavani as a second striker, and Juan Mata for Maguire, was a chance.
Raphaël Varane had the only one of note with a 77th-minute header that Oblak worked. The frustration was overwhelming and United now know that their trophy drought will extend into a fifth year.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism