Ole Gunnar Solskjær had said beforehand that Manchester United were addicted to making life difficult for themselves. It had long been in their blood and his players appeared determined to prove their manager’s point during a torrid opening period against RB Leipzig. They slumped to an early 2-0 deficit and the damage could and should have been heavier.
The next part of the equation in recent times for Solskjær and the club has been outlandish fightbacks, particularly away from home. All hope looked lost when the Leipzig substitute Justin Kluivert made it 3-0 midway through the second half – a goal that had come against the run of play. United had advertised a goal of their own after the restart.
Game over? It looked that way in a tie in which United needed a draw to advance. Anything else and they would be out. Then came the fightback. Mason Greenwood won a soft penalty, which Bruno Fernandes converted, before Paul Pogba, on as a substitute, bundled a header goalwards that flicked off Harry Maguire and went in off Ibrahima Konaté.
It was drama of the highest order and United wanted to show they had one last punch to throw. They did not have it. Leipzig were nervy but they got the job done. For United, there is yet more soul-searching.
United had been unlucky with the group phase draw and, when it was made, perhaps they would have signed for going into the final tie needing a point. It was never going to be easy to escape a section that included PSG, the beaten finalists from last season, and Leipzig, who had fallen at the semi-final stage.
Yet once they had beaten PSG and Leipzig in the opening games, they had one foot in the last 16. That the situation here was so delicate owed much to their shock defeat at Istanbul Basaksehir in the third tie. It felt like a big slip at the time and has come to feel more and more significant.
Solskjær had wanted solidity and he set up in the 3-4-1-2 formation with which he had won in Paris. It offered him nothing of the sort. United were torn apart at the outset, they conceded two early goals and they were fortunate not to be 3-0 down by the 17th minute. That was when Emil Forsberg took a touch inside the area and, in yards of space, flicked a shot just past the post. It was a bad miss.
It felt as though Leipzig could afford to be generous. They had United chasing shadows; their fluency in midfield was too much for Solskjær’s team. It was difficult to pin down their formation because the manner in which they interchanged positions was so slick.
The dangerman at the outset was the left-sided defender, Angeliño, who is on loan from Manchester City. He pushed high up the flank and United did not know what to do with him. Leaving him alone as they did in the second minute, though, was not the thing to do.
Leipzig wanted to hit long diagonals from right to left for Angeliño and, when Marcel Sabitzer played the first one of the evening, in behind Victor Lindelöf and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Angeliño could scarcely believe how much space he had. He fired past David de Gea into the far corner.
Leipzig’s second was similarly too easy from a United point of view, Angeliño crossing from the left and Amadou Haidara arriving in space to guide a volley home. Forsberg’s miss was not United’s only let off. The midfielder narrowly failed to play in Sabitzer while Willi Orban had a goal disallowed for offside after Konaté’s header came back off the post.
The first half was an ordeal for United. And yet they did have chances of their own, none better than the one that Nemanja Matic provided for Greenwood on nine minutes. The striker was clean through but he was denied by Peter Gulacsi. Marcus Rashford also had a couple of first-half flickers only to see one shot blocked when well placed and find himself crowded out following a through ball from Scott McTominay.
Solskjær had to rethink at half-time; he had to change the flow of the game and his move was to switch to 4-2-3-1, with Donny Van de Beek coming on for the left wing-back, Alex Telles. Against the odds and what had played out in the first 30 minutes, United still had a pulse. Could they make the most of their reprieve?
Solskjær’s next move was to introduce Brandon Williams and, to greater fanfare, Pogba, whose absence from the starting XI, the manager said, had nothing to do with the comments of his agent on Monday. Mino Raiola had said that Pogba still wanted to leave.
It became a question of whether United could score next and they had a few more flickers, with Fernandes at the heart of them. He almost picked out Maguire with a free-kick, he worked Gulasci from distance and then curled a free-kick against the crossbar.
United were knocking on the door. But then they conceded the third and, in keeping with the tone of their evening, it was a horrible moment. When Angeliño’s cross deflected, Maguire and De Gea seemed to freeze. The finish from the substitute, Justin Kluivert, was dinked home in style.