Mata shines for United but Devils' back still hurts
Spaniard a bright spark for United, but dodgy defence still a big concern
MAN UNITED 2
(Juan Mata 34-pen, Chris Smalling 53)
(Daniel Caligiuri 4)
Juan Mata's four years in the English Premier League have been a life less ordinary.
Of the seven different managers who have presided over his career since arriving from Valencia, only one condemned him unfit for purpose.
Jose Mourinho may soon come to regret that decision - if he hasn't already.
As Chelsea's season flatlines, both on the home front and in Europe, Mata's and that of Manchester United continue to flourish.
Yesterday morning (Singapore time), the 27-year-old sparkled once more as Louis van Gaal's side salvaged both their Champions League destiny and some much-needed pride for English clubs in the competition.
Before Manchester City's late victory at Borussia Moenchengladbach, the Red Devils were on course to end Matchday 2 as the EPL's sole standard-bearer - due largely to the brilliance of Mata.
Van Gaal bluntly insisted that he had seen the Spain international deliver better performances than the one which put a tormented Wolfsburg to the sword.
Many connected to Old Trafford will struggle to recall such an outing.
He was near flawless.
United's No. 8 shirt remains synonymous with the likes of Paul Ince and Gordon Strachan, but Mata offers a compelling case that creativity, rather than consolidation, should dictate the future of the illustrious digit.
Already involved in over half of United's EPL goals this season, the backheeled flick that led to Chris Smalling's winning goal in the 53rd minute illustrated why he, more so than the prodigious Anthony Martial, has become the Red Devils' undisputed man of the moment.
It was an exquisite assist - his fifth of the campaign - yet hardly unexpected. Nor was his coolly taken penalty, usurping responsibility from Wayne Rooney. Mata is a player for whom grandiose has become a staple of his footballing backstory.
At times, it has worked against him, not least during his formative months at United; in the death throes of David Moyes' tenure.
Van Gaal's tough-love stance, conversely, has empowered him.
Mata's return to a centralised role during last month's defeat by PSV Eindhoven proved ineffectual. Restored to a more familiar wide berth, Mata is again performing at the peak of his powers.
He has directly contributed to 29 goals since his £37.1 million ($80.1m) move to United.
None of his teammates have covered more ground this season.
Indeed, few are likely to rival his 95 per cent passing accuracy against the beleaguered Bundesliga side.
Statistics tell only a fraction of the story behind his Old Trafford renaissance.
Mitigating circumstances have played their part. The scrutiny on Martial, Memphis Depay and Rooney, lacking conviction despite ending his goal famine last weekend, have afforded the Spaniard breathing space.
United's blueprint for success, however, lies within the fortunes of David de Gea as much as it does the form of his compatriot.
Under-stocked and overrun at the other end of the field, van Gaal either failed to receive the memo that defence is supposed to be his side's best form of attack or simply ignored it.
The hangover from Luke Shaw's potentially season-ending injury has been laid bare. Antonio Valencia's return as a wingback, a role which has saved an otherwise dwindling United career, showed why his versatility has become more a cause than it is a cure.
His part in Daniel Caligiuri's fourth-minute strike, against the run of play, was merely the tip of the Ecuadorian's shortcomings.
Van Gaal's concession that his half-time hooking was prompted by a need to "stop the crosses" places the Dutchman's wisdom in clearing his defensive deck under the microscope.
Valencia is not alone. Daley Blind, too, has played his part in causing disservice to United's backline as another midfielder finding himself horribly exposed by opposition forwards.
If van Gaal had hoped to convince de Gea that his future should lie at Old Trafford, rather than with Real Madrid, a defence devoid of strength in depth, let alone quality, should set alarm bells ringing with both the Spaniard and his manager.
Failing to replenish United's stock over the summer after allowing the likes of Rafael da Silva, arguably a more competent stand-in at right back than Valencia has ever proved, and Jonny Evans to depart could prove costly.
As things stand, United are sitting pretty heading into this Sunday's EPL clash with Arsenal, but their crown continues to slip.
They remain teetering on a steward's enquiry with every week of eked-out victories that passes.
“The ball came to me from Bastian’s (Schweinsteiger) shot and I tried to keep it moving and had the feeling there could be someone at the back post and Chris (Smalling) took it really well.”
— Juan Mata, on his backheel assist for Smalling’s winner
3 This is the third time that Juan Mata has scored and assisted in a Champions League game. He had also done so with former clubs Valencia and Chelsea.
95 Juan Mata has the highest pass completion rate - at 95 per cent - in this match against Wolfsburg
- MAN UNITED: David de Gea, Antonio Valencia (Ashley Young 46), Chris Smalling, Daley Blind, Matteo Darmian, Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger (Phil Jones 72), Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, Memphis Depay (Andreas Pereira 62), Anthony Martial
- WOLFSBURG: Diego Benaglio, Christian Trasch (Sebastian Jung 77), Naldo, Dante, Ricardo Rodriguez, Josuha Guilavogui, Maximilian Arnold (Andre Schuerrle 70), Daniel Caligiuri, Max Kruse, Julian Draxler, Bas Dost (Nicklas Bendtner 70)
Van Gaal: My Devils are tired
Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal suggested his side are being affected by fatigue after they battled to a 2-1 Champions League victory over Wolfsburg at Old Trafford yesterday morning (Singapore time).
United were somewhat unconvincing as they registered their first Group B points with the win, having to come from behind after Daniel Caligiuri's fourth-minute strike and then, following Juan Mata's penalty and a Chris Smalling goal, hanging on towards the end.
Van Gaal was pleased with the comeback and some aspects of the performance, but felt United got lucky when they were awarded the 34th-minute spot-kick for a handball by Caligiuri, and criticised them for being careless in possession.
He said that playing their sixth game in 18 days has taken its toll.
Van Gaal, whose Premier League leaders visit Arsenal on Sunday, said: "We scored at once (in the second half to make it 2-1) but, after that, it was suffering.
"A lot of players are very tired because of the accumulation of a lot of matches.
"We had given a lot in the first half, and also, (it is about) the accumulation of the matches in the last weeks because I cannot understand (otherwise) why we would give the ball away so easily."
Van Gaal said his side had deserved to win overall given the amount of chances they created, and praised the spirit they had shown to secure the result.
But he stressed there is still plenty of room for improvement for United, who have now won four consecutive games in all competitions since losing their Group B opener 2-1 at PSV Eindhoven.
Van Gaal said: "We have to keep our feet on the ground and we have to improve a lot to be at the top of Europe.
"We have beaten Wolfsburg, I am very happy and the players are very happy, but we have to improve on the second-half performance and we have to know that, and I have said that also to the players. We could have won this game in a better way."
- PA Sport.
CSKA back on track
Russian league leaders CSKA Moscow bounced back from their Champions League opening Group B defeat when they edged out 10-man Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven 3-2 at home yesterday morning (Singapore time).
A strike from Nigerian forward Ahmed Musa and a brace by Ivory Coast sharp-shooter Seydou Doumbia set CSKA on their way to a narrow victory that put them equal on three points with the other three teams in their group.
With Manchester United's 2-1 win over Wolfsburg at Old Trafford, all the home sides have won the first four pool matches.
Belgian Maxime Lestienne was twice on target for PSV, but it wasn't enough for the visitors.
"In the second half, everything went a bit astray and we had a nervous ending due to our own slackness," said CSKA coach Leonid Slutsky.
"Of course, I'm happy with the result but there's also a certain displeasure because of our poor performance in the second period." - AFP.