Group B remains ever tight but up until the 79th minute at Old Trafford last night, Manchester United were in real danger of leaving themselves with no margin for error ahead of the last two group-stage fixtures.
Predictably, CSKA Moscow sat back and allowed United plenty of the ball. Except that United failed to make much decent use of it. Perhaps the biggest surprise from the visitor's team news was the omission of Ivory Coast striker Doumbia from the starting XI. The problems he caused United when he eventually came on made it an intriguing decision to keep him on the bench. Indeed, the big Ivorian could have won the game in the moments preceding Wayne Rooney's opener.
As it were, a combination of heroic goalkeeping and defending from David De Gea and Chris Smalling kept United within a goal of the victory. When Michael Carrick found Jesse Lingard with a lofted pass, the otherwise dynamic Englishman cross-volleyed into the path of his captain. With every neck muscle he could summon, the hitherto ineffectual Rooney powered a close range header past Igor Akinfeev to send the Stretford End wild with joy and relief.
On The Match
Unfortunately, for the neutral, CSKA Moscow came off the bus with the same mission United had in Russia, to get a point. It made for a 90 minute contest of Attack vs Defence. Somehow, United fans in the stadium didn't seem to see it that way, calling for the team to Attack at the halftime whistle.
It's almost impossible to fathom how Louis van Gaal could have set up this United team in a more attack minded way. Anthony Martial was effectively in a twin striking role with Wayne Rooney. Ashley Young at right-back in place of Darmian was an attacking change. Rojo was essentially an auxiliary left back, getting in plenty of crosses and being on the end of four chances to score. It doesn't get more attacking than that!
Indeed, United were much quicker and slicker on the ball than on Saturday at Selhurst Park. The downside was that too often United were limited in their ability play through the middle of the CSKA defence. With Ander Herrera sacrificed to keep the captain playing, there was almost no invention down the middle. Too often, United sought the width of the energetic Jesse Lingard, the overlapping Ashley Young and Marcos Rojo. It didn't take long for the Russian Champions to figure it out and when they did, United were reduced to hoping for mistakes from their guests rather than forcing the issue.
In the end, it was combination of accuracy in the air that undid the defensive shift of CSKA. From the moment that the ball was lifted off the turf off the boot of Michael Carrick, 40 yards diagonal from goal, it did not hit the turf again until it was in the back of the net. Lingard did well to read the pass well enough to divert it mid-air and accurately into the path of an unmarked Wayne Rooney.
On the Sub-Plots
Ashley Young dived for a penalty. Thankfully, he did not succeed in getting United to benefit from his dark art.
Louis van Gaal was the target of dissent from the Old Trafford crowd when he elected to take off Anthony Martial for Marouanne Fellaini. He almost made it to 18 months without so much as a boo from the stands. That Wayne Rooney grabbed the winner will have served his decision more legitimacy given that the fans no doubt would have wanted the England captain off instead.
Jesse Lingard did not set the world alight with his performance yesterday. At times he was rash, at times his first touch and decision making failed him but goodness me, what energy and commitment levels! He is now 22 years old and has earned his shot after being patient for a couple of seasons and already, it appears Memphis has a job on his hands to get his place back.
Lingard, despite his limitations when compared to the Dutchman provides directness that complements the otherwise tentative approach of Louis van Gaal. For a young lad growing up a few miles from Old Trafford, it was pleasing to see him collect a Man of the Match award in the Champions League.
On the Bottom Line
Make no mistake about it, Wayne Rooney scored a big, big goal for United last night. The dynamics of the group are such that all four teams could still qualify for the last 16 with just two games left. The win however puts the Red Devils within three points of European football after the winter. With PSV Eindhoven to come to Old Trafford at the end of the month, qualification should be assured before the tricky away game at VfL Wolfsburg in December.
Now that the clock has stopped ticking up that goal drought, perhaps Saturday will see a more ruthless United in the final fixture before the last International break of the year.
Labels: JESSE LINGARD, LOUIS VAN GAAL, MEMPHIS DEPAY, MICHAEL CARRICK, UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE, WAYNE ROONEY