On Tuesday, Manchester United played the home leg of the Champions League Play-off game against Club Brugge, a match critical to the overall brand of the Red Devils and Louis Van Gaal's success as a manager this season. United have not kicked into full gear this season yet, so it was an important match despite playing against competition from a less prominent league.
Louis Van Gaal selected the exact same team from the weekend's victory against Aston Villa with Romero in net, Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Shaw in defense, Carrick, Schneiderlin, Memphis, Januzaj, Mata in midfield, and Rooney at lone striker.
During the pre-game warm-ups and pageantry, Memphis had an intense concentration, a deep focus ahead of his first ever Champions League match. After a slow start in domestic league, it was clearly evident how critical he believed the match to be to the United campaign and his career in their infancy.
The team, however, started slowly, atypical of glory years Manchester United with timid passing in their defensive half, even a scary 8 yard back pass to Romero, cleared just before crossing the goal line. The slow start would haunt United immediately, as disaster occurred on an early Brugge set piece in the eighth minute. After Mata surrendered the foul off a throw-in, the free kick was hit dangerously towards the near post, deflecting first off of Adnan Januzaj as the lone man in the wall, and next, calling Michael Carrick into action next to avert the danger. The Englishman misread the path of the ball and his attempt at a clearance shot the ball on frame at the United net past a diving Romero, who was left hanging out to dry by the deflection. Brugge seized the early lead, but also, most importantly in European inter-league play, an away goal.
The lead would last only five minutes, as Michael Carrick would make amends for his blunder with an assist on Memphis' first career goal. Carrick played a ball in the air that reached Memphis outside the 18 yard box. Memphis chested the pass to control, flicked it over the head of a tackling Brugge defender, then headed it down to feet and began a slaloming dribble across the face of goal through the box. He showed true composure, pace, and striking ability as he patiently dribbled across the Brugge backline to pick the perfect moment to strike the ball into the bottom right, leveling the match at 1-1.
Where United's confidence grew, Brugge's seemed to shrink away from the game and it was only a matter of time before the Red Devils became the side in ascendancy, creating the majority of chances and holding the majority of possession. United earned back to back corner kicks and Wayne Rooney was involved in chances on goal for what seemed the first time all season, nearly putting a bicycle kick in one occasion and hitting a header across the frame of goal on the other occasion.
In the 43rd minute, the United breakthrough arrived on the feet of the talented Dutch youngster. Memphis slipped his defender making a run in behind his left shoulder towards the net. With his first touch, he settled the pass from Daley Blind with his left, touch a dribbling touch with his right, and unleashed an absolutely scintillating strike on the third touch with his right. The ball was struck with extreme pace, clocked at 57 mph, and with a curl that always had the keeper beaten to give United the first share of the lead just before halftime.
At halftime, LVG made his first substitution, a straight swap, as Bastian Schweinsteiger replaced Michael Carrick. In the second half, United regained their control of the game, pressing the attack for further goals to put the playoff to bed. In the 62nd minute, Memphis was called into action again with a chance on goal for hat trick. The movement, Rooney's best involvement on the afternoon, came from a back heel from the United and English captain, playing Memphis one on one with the Brugge keeper. Memphis' attempt on net, however, was his least polished attempt on the debut, as he skied the ball over the crossbar.
Defensively, United were nearly exposed as Romero misread the pace of a back pass, allowing a Brugge attacker to nearly close him down and misplaying his clearance short to another Brugge attacker. The referee, however, deemed that a foul was committed in the tackle that affected the pass, awarding United a fortunate free kick for the goalie's miscue. Except for that bit of action at the back, United's energy was mostly spent going forward.
In the 79th minute, there offensive pressure called a yellow-carded Brugge player into action leading to a second yellow and consequently a red card, placing the Belgian side down to ten men on the field. If United weren't dominant on the ball before the dismissal, they certainly became so with the man advantage. A set piece near the Brugge 18yard box led to a Smalling header chance, hit right above the goalie's head and caught just well enough to prevent a rebound chance or corner kick.
United were desperate to get a third goal given their extreme advantage in overall shot attempts and shots on goal and in the final moments of the match, they would score the third goal. Memphis, the danger man on ball, played a scything cross from the left flank into the box, aimed at the Belgian target man Marouane Fellaini, who entered the game for Rooney. The connection between the two was perfect, leaving Fellaini with the slight work of placing the free header in the corner of the net. The match was called to an end soon after with United earning the result they needed in a fashion that displays improvement.
Overall, United's players performed well, but a few efforts leave room for improvement. Romero was called into action only a few times, and except for the back pass miscue, he was more than up to the task. Darmian turned in another dominant performance at right back controlling the right flank and displaying precise positioning in attack and defense. Luke Shaw was also impressive down the left, demonstrating his pace and newly gained defensive pedigree. Smalling was United's most impressive defensive player, shoring up the center and even the flanks when called into action, never beaten for pace or skill on the evening. Blind revealed himself a capable center back partner, even chipping in an assist. Schneiderlin was solid for the most part, providing coverage for the wingbacks when advanced and holding possession well not losing many balls. Carrick had a poor performance today, despite his assist after surrendering the own goal and losing out on possession far too often. He was appropriately subbed at halftime. Memphis was the golden talisman that United needed even last season, turning in an inspiring CL debut, the only shame that he couldn't polish it off with a hat trick given the opportunity he had in the 62nd minute. The assist in the final action of the game more than compensates for the miss. Januzaj turned a second good performance in a row, dazzling the Old Trafford fans with close touch dribbles and creating chances from the central attacking role. He could have managed the ball better perhaps, but that is a common gripe for any performance in the #10 role. Mata faded into obscurity after a terrific performance at the weekend, as the majority of scoring chances were generated from the left wing. Rooney had another ignominious performance, looking not altogether settled in the striker role, his beguiling backheel the only redeeming quality in his performance, a true shame that it didn't it lead to a goal through no fault of his own. Schweinsteiger had a good half stabilizing the United midfield, allowing the team's pace around him to exhibit itself. Fellaini provided the aerial threat that United lacked throughout the game, proving a key substitution in the final moments. Chicharito also made his return debut, after a loan spell at Real Madrid, a quiet, tame exhibition that found the Mexican frontman mostly chasing down throughballs and securing possession, holding up the play. He didn't manage to take a shot, so hope for more from him as he looks to acclimate to life under Van Gaal.
United have another short recovery this week as they play Newcastle United on the weekend and finish the Champions League playoff with Brugge on Wednesday. The game against Newcastle will be aired on Saturday at 7:45AM live from Old Trafford on NBCSN. Next week's match against Brugge will be aired on the Fox Sports network.