Manchester United kick-started their Champions League revival by coming from behind to beat Wolfsburg 2-1 at Old Trafford and get their first points of the group stage. After a defeat at PSV Eindhoven on their return to the competition two weeks ago, United put themselves under even greater pressure when allowing Daniel Caligiuri to give last season’s Bundesliga runners-up a fourth-minute lead. But the response from Louis van Gaal’s side was an impressive one. After Juan Mata converted a penalty before the interval following Caligiuri’s handball in the box, the Spaniard supplied a brilliantly inventive assist for Chris Smalling to get a decisive second goal.
The result means that all four teams in Group B now sit on three points, ahead of double-headers between Manchester Untied and CSKA Moscow, and Wolfsburg and PSV Eindhoven. And United should enter those fixtures with confidence after what was a fourth successive win in all competitions.
Top of the Premier League after beating Sunderland 3-0 on Saturday, Van Gaal talked in the buildup to this latest contest of what he saw as realistic ambitions for United to compete seriously for glory both at home and in Europe this season. While that still appears heavily optimistic, there is little doubt that there continue to be encouraging signs in the Dutchman’s second season in charge.
Admittedly it took a poor goal given away to thrust them into gear. There were evidence of the problems caused by a reconfigured backline when full-backs Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian, both playing out of position, allowed Caligiuri to give Wolfsburg the lead. And in the final 20 minutes, the team again wobbled as Wolfsburg pushed in search of an equalizer. But for much of what came in between, Manchester United played with an impressive tempo that provided an element of control and a threat going forward. Aiding that attacking menace was Anthony Martial, who, although still waiting for his first Champions League goal, again provided a real spark leading the line.
On this occasion, however, it was Mata who was United’s star man. Although he has not always been the integral figure his large fee suggested he should be since his move from Chelsea 18 months ago, he was a danger throughout. And, after successfully taking over the penalty-taking duties from Wayne Rooney, Mata's wonderful back-heel set up Smalling to become the unlikely game winner.
Still, Van Gaal will surely have some stern words to say about the goal his team conceded. Caligiuri was first allowed to run free in the buildup and then drift unchecked behind an errant offside trap to meet Max Kruse’s through ball and beat David de Gea.
Wolfsburg were playing a smart game early on, containing United through the middle before striking quickly on the counter attack in a continuation of the strategy that took them back to the Champions League after a six-year absence. Gradually, though, United began to make inroads, with Martial and Mata key.
Both players went close to getting the hosts back on level terms, while Martial brilliantly set up Rooney for a golden chance he ballooned over on a night to forget for the England forward. But that memory was soon erased when Caligiuri gifted them a 34th minute equalizer. As Mata tried to curl a cross into the box, Caligiuri had his arm outstretched to allow the ball to strike it and give the referee little choice but to point to the spot. To some surprise it was not Rooney, who has been far from prolific from the spot, but Mata who stepped forward and sent Diego Benaglio the wrong way.
Memphis Depay perhaps should have given United a second before the interval, when latching onto Mata’s square pass in the box. Yet it took until just eight minutes into the second half for the three-time European champions to go in front. The attack looked to have broken down when Bastian Schweinsteiger mishit a long-range shot into the turf. But Mata wonderfully kept the move alive with a sumptuous flick that Smalling latched onto to stretch and beat Benaglio.
But having gone in front United relinquished their control. The introduction of former Chelsea attacker Andre Schurrle helped give Wolfsburg more attacking vigor and the World Cup winner came agonizingly close to getting his side level only to drag a shot past the post. There were further scares besides, but United held on for what was a near-essential three points.