Remember them margins that Manchester United have tailed throughout the campaign so far? Turns out, United just couldn't cling on any further, at least not for the remainder of this season's UEFA Champions League.

In many ways, United played their most entertaining game of the season last night. Indeed, 3-2 scorelines of any kind suggest an all out attacking game with chances aplenty for both sides. The kind of games fans have longed for since the start of the Louis van Gaal era. That it ended in a painful defeat is therefore ironic. Not that it would change the ultimate outcome but would we trade that thrilling game for a bore 0-0 draw? Probably not in the circumstances.

The Group Stage
As far as the Champions League is concerned, United were as good as damaged by that failure to beat PSV Eindhoven in that home game two weeks ago. The Group stages carry a simple formula for qualification: Win your home games, get the point away. United, in the end were short by the two points they dropped against the Dutch Champions.

Travelling to Germany searching for a win was always a dangerous margin to tread. Like in 2005 and 2011, United suffered from a Champions League group in which they failed to rise above the mediocre level of the group. Like in 2011, United will have to contend with at least two fixtures in the Europa league.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the group stage has been that it ended just like it started. Louis van Gaal seemed intent to set up United to thrill in attack in the opening group game in Holland. United led but lost 2-1 after creating enough chances to win three games of football. In between that opener and yesterday's fixture, van Gaal went solid again as United claimed hard earned points against Wolfsburg and CSKA Moscow. The failure to beat PSV at home to secure qualification meant that van Gaal had to open up and go for it yesterday.

Just like it turned out in Eindhoven, when United opened, up, their defence became less than ordinary. Without the protective cover of Morgan Schneiderlin, Wolfsburg curved United open at will. Worse, a team supposedly drilled in set pieces conceded two from dead balls. That both set piece goals came quickly after United had gotten their goals was more baffling.

In hindsight, it now looks like van Gaal cannot send out his team to be offensive without being loose at the back, or solid without being blunt up top. What a predicament 18 months into his tenure!

If Louis van Gaal privately knew this beforehand, then (after lambasting him) he needs to be applauded for opting to go solid with United for premier league games. If United can defend this poorly when let off the leash, then it is arguable they would not be this close to the summit of the league if they were set up to go forit domestically. There is but one way you can be that poor defensively and still attack with abandon---if you can get the goals at the other end!

In Sir Alex's final season, United were as poor defensively as they had ever been under the Scott and yet remained successful that season because he had Robin van Persie at his prime best, fit throughout the campaign to get United of holes such as conceding three first half goals to Reading.

Louis van Gaal has a very youthful forward line that cannot be trusted to take the chances that they create. That, perhaps, is the biggest indictment on his transfer strategy.

The Sub-Plots
It comes in mitigation that van Gaal has been desperately unlucky with injuries this campaign. The Dutchman chose to go with a much smaller squad than United usually have at their disposal and it has come to haunt the club at the halfway stage of the season.

It's fantastic for the Academy graduates who couldn't have dreamed of representing United at the highest level this season. Borthwick-Jackson for instance didn't start the season expecting to feature in United's most important game of the season so far. For United's cause however, it has come to cost the club of experienced heads in the most demanding of situations.

Talking of experience, there was further irony in the fact that all three goals conceded on the night were as a result of mistakes from experienced players. Chris Smalling and Daley Blind contrived to lose Naldo for the equaliser whilst Michael Carrick lost the Brazillian for the winner. Bastian Schweinsteiger was also uncharacteristically careless in possession throughout, attracting criticism from his manager in the post match press conference.

More importantly going forward, the concern will be how soon United can patch up injured duo Matteo Darmian and Chris Smalling in time for a packed Christmas schedule of fixtures in the premier league.

On the plus side, Varela recovered from a shocking start to put in an impressive shift at right-back. He might just soften the blow to losing Darmian for a spell on the sidelines.

The Bottom-Line
When all is tallied, United were never going to win the UEFA Champions League this season. It's just that people prefer getting knocked out by FC Barcelona 6-0 on aggregate than being booted out by VfL Wolfsburg.

For all their poor showings this season, the club remain with a good shout for a title challenge in the league. Certainly, a response is required.

Labels: ,