COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Only Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United can win a game twice and still lose. When the full story of their wild 2023-24 season is told, there won’t be a more inexplicable chapter than their Champions League debacle in Copenhagen on Wednesday.
A pre-match tirade raised by the home fans warned United that the Parken Stadium was “your theater of nightmares” and it couldn’t get any prettier than that.
Coasting to 2-0 up after 30 minutes and then regaining the lead at 3-2 on 69 minutes, despite being reduced to 10 players after Marcus Rashford’s first-half dismissal, United scraped away victory with shambolic defending against FC Copenhagen. The latter stage resulted in the home side scoring twice in the last seven minutes to send United to a 4-3 win. Below Group A There are two games to play with.
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And just to add to the sense of farce surrounding United’s woes, chants of “Rooney, Rooney” rang out at the Parken Stadium end. Not as a memorial to former United great Wayne Rooney, but as a tribute to 17-year-old forward Rooney Bardzi, who scored in the 88th minute in Copenhagen.
“It was our weakest performance in the group so far,” said Copenhagen coach Jacob Nestrup. But we deserve this win for our performance in the other three matches.
In fairness to United, their ninth defeat in 17 games in all competitions was not down to error by Ten Haag and his players, with VAR intervention showing a red card for Rashford before Harry Maguire conceded a harsh handball penalty. United disbanded after that decision Rasmus Hjlund Scored twice against his hometown team.
But Rashford was out for a catch in the 42nd minute Elias Gelert With the sole of his boot up on the shin — a foul which was missed by referee Donatus Rumsas before being flagged by VAR — United looked on course for an easy victory after their best performance of the season.
Yet the fragility of Ten Hague’s side, which has been evident all season in the face of adversity, reappeared as soon as Rashford walked down the tunnel, United’s lead wiped out at half-time by a goal in Copenhagen. Mohammad Ilyunusi And then a Diogo Gonsalves penalty.
The second half was then clearly a test of United’s resolve. Can they finally shake off their inconsistencies and show fighting spirit to earn a draw or even a win?
Initially, the answer was yes. Ten Hague brought on Sofiane Amrabat for Christian Eriksen at half-time in an attempt to add more defensive elements to his midfield, and United slipped out of the game and frustrated the home side despite a man disadvantage.
And when United were awarded a penalty in the 66th minute following Lucas Lerager’s handball — this time VAR was found in United’s favor — a remarkable, wall-to-wall victory suddenly presented itself.
Bruno Fernandes scored from the penalty spot to put United 3-2 up and saw the visitors hold on for more than 20 minutes and see out the game for a crucial victory, but one that would act as a much-needed turning point. For what is quickly becoming a terrible season.
But this is Manchester United we are talking about. Not the great, multi-Champions League-winning teams of yesteryear, but the modern version that has come to typify weakness, chaos and how not to play at the highest level or at all.
United have shown an ability to chase down a losing cause this season, scoring late winners against Brentford, Sheffield United and Fulham, but when it comes to holding onto a winning position, they are clueless.
Burley dissects Man United’s ‘surprising’ loss to Copenhagen
Craig Burley explains all the blame for Manchester United’s abject defeat to Copenhagen in the UEFA Champions League.
Even with 10 players, most top teams can find a way to shut down a game and run the clock down when the pressure is on, but this United side just crumbled. With less than 10 minutes to play, United invited the Copenhagen forward and allowed the Danish champions to camp outside the penalty area. Having scored twice at Old Trafford, Copenhagen already knew United had plenty of defensive lapses and they came forward again.
Diogo Daltot was at fault for Copenhagen’s third goal when he failed to recognize the danger and then stop it, while Leraga outfoxed him at the far post to score from close range. Seven days earlier, Dalt was similarly careless when he allowed Miguel Almiron to score for Newcastle United in United’s 3-0 Carabao Cup defeat.
And the Portugal international was also at fault for Bardzi’s winner — a stunning left-footed strike — when he turned to the teenager’s shot rather than dive himself. United’s early failure to clear the ball was the spark for the goal, but Dalt should have done better.
“The squad is resilient,” argued Ten Haag after the game. “A lot of decisions have been against us all season, but every time there is spirit and fight. We will continue and it will be ours.
“Football is a game of mistakes. We didn’t do everything right, even with 10 men we managed the game. We didn’t do everything, but we did a lot of things right.”
United are still alive in Group A, but only just, and will need to show incredible spirit and confidence to beat Galatasaray in a hostile environment in Istanbul.
Despite Ten Haag’s comments about “soul”, the reality is that his players are when they really matter, and there’s nowhere to hide in the Champions League.