Manchester United are showing admirable aplomb in their Champions League campaign. On Wednesday night, they flatly beat last season’s semi-finalist RB Leipzig to complete the victory over runner-up Paris Saint-Germain in their Group H opener.
It was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s best team to date, a spectacle which, while far from perfect, bodes well. When Bruno Fernandes slipped Marcus Rashford in the 75th minute, the forward beat Leipzig’s No.1 Peter Gulasci with ease. The assistant referee signaled, but VAR showed Rashford wasn’t halfway there and the goal was restored. The fact that these two players started off the bench was an illustration of the depth of quality of Solskjaer’s squad – Rashford then killed the visitors with such a convincing third moment later before Anthony Martial’s late penalty – and it was time for Rashford to land a hat – trick.
Solskjaer has given Donny van de Beek a first start in the competition, having yet to make it in the Premier League. Paul Pogba was called up after three games on the bench, while Mason Greenwood was named to the squad for the second time this quarter. RB Leipzig arrived as undefeated leaders of the Bundesliga, thus providing the final litmus test for Solskjaer’s side. An intriguing element here was how they would fare without Fernandes, the best player rested for a game of major importance for the first time since arriving in January, alongside winner of the week Marcus Rashford last at Paris Saint-Germain. Van de Beek lined up at the tip of a diamond in midfield behind Greenwood and Anthony Martial and it was Fred who had the opening stroke. Luke Shaw threw a free kick into the Leipzig area, Harry Maguire headed down, and when the ball popped at Fred, it flared up at Peter Gulacsi with the goalkeeper having his fingers warmed up.
United were determined to adopt a muscular pressure tactic that drove Anthony Martial to harass Dayot Upamecano when the midfielder of the three center-backs deployed by Julian Nagelsmann tried to start the game. It was the Frenchman’s break on the right that made the scramble Leipzig, but when Martial tried to find Greenwood in the middle of the race, the pass was behind him and the Germans recovered. The pace was high: Leipzig moved the ball up the field in a streak that ended with Emil Forsberg firing and sabotaging Aaron Wan-Bissaka. The feeling, however, was that each team thundered at the other while lacking composure.
Upamecano hit a pass directly to Fred who in aiming at Van de Beek found only opposition. Nemanja Matic received halfway, turned and crashed towards Greenwood but once again the radar was off. The latter was about to show ultimate precision. Pogba made the teenager’s first game with a push that brought Leipzig back and a slide rule pass that met the race at the right time from Greenwood, whose supreme tilt finish beat Gulacsi. He appeared slightly offside but VAR ruled otherwise and the goal was held. Here is the latest proof of Greenwood’s unmistakable class. Yet from corner to end United’s fragile defense was also visible when Victor Lindelof failed to challenge Upamecano, the ball went to Marcel Halstenberg and Matic saved his side. In Christoper Nkuku, Shaw had an opponent along his left-back lane who consistently led him like when Ibrahima Konate fed No.18. And in Leipzig, United had a squad that had been camping in their territory since they opened.
Still, they had the lead at the start of the second half. And had impressed. The question now was whether they could show clever handling of the game – and the first signs were not encouraging as Shaw, Maguire, and Van de Beek were all cowardly during the cast. Shaw, however, was more precise when he timed a tackle on Benjamin Henrichs in the region, which presaged a period of United pressure in which Greenwood discharged a right-footed shot that Gulacsi beat – that chance another product of Pogba, who this time made a mistake at Upamecano.
When they attacked Leipzig were certainly aiming for Shaw’s flank as Nkunku, Heinrichs and Halstenberg looked for combinations to unlock the local rearguard in this area. Heinrichs also looked lucky not to be booked for a stamp on Pogba who brought down the midfielder, with Maguire asking referee Matej Jug why he hadn’t located his yellow card. Martial had remained silent, but now a familiar push from the left had made him ghost in the area and just couldn’t hit Van de Beek. In the 63rd minute, Solskjaer introduced Scott McTominay and Marcus Rashford for Matic and Greenwood, the manager plumping for fresh legs, then seeing David De Gea make a nice point-blank save from Konate.
Now, however, has come to United’s grandstand as Rashford sealed a remarkable hat trick on the bench: they start to shift into high gear.