Marcus Rashford steals three points from a near-certain Wolves stalemate
On Tuesday night, Manchester United faced a challenge wholly unlike their recent barnstorming victories.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had never achieved victory against Wolves in the Premier League, and the meeting between the two has consistently seen defensive masterclasses that have nullified the flowing attacks of both sides. When United surpassed Wolves in the FA Cup last season, they only did so thanks to a single goal over the course of 180 minutes of football.
While Solskjaer would have been grateful not to have to contend with the threatening presence of Raúl Jiménez, who is thankfully recovering well from his serious head injury, the challenge of breaking down a stubborn Wolves defence remained.
Tasking the most experienced striker with breaking Rui Patricio’s defiance in between the visitor’s goalposts, Edinson Cavani was selected to lead a front line completed by Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood.
Service into the lethal Uruguayan was ultimately limited however, as Wolves’ youthful back line constantly stifled United’s wingers from penetrating deep enough to provide Cavani the chances he feeds off.
The golden chance of the first half ended up falling to Bruno Fernandes rather than Cavani, as the Portuguese maestro ghosted in at the back post to volley from Mason Greenwood’s sumptuous cross. A difficult chance, right in the face of Fernandes’ compatriot Patricio, but many may have expected a better finish from perhaps the most in-form player in Europe.
Rather than signalling a period of pressure, Fernandes’ volley instead saw Wolves carve up the lion’s share of chances in the first 45 minutes. Pushing forward from his role at the centre of the back three, Romain Saïss often found himself probing into David De Gea’s danger areas and could well have given his side the lead.
His header, had it fallen inches shorter than the post it clattered off of, would’ve left De Gea helpless, but the Spaniard was keenly alert to keep out the Moroccan’s second effort. Saïss’ flick on from a driven Pedro Neto free kick flew at De Gea, and the cat-like reflexes that have repelled so many great efforts at Old Trafford over the years were once again found to be reliable.
As a familiar first half at Old Trafford drew to a close, United had found themselves lacking a killer instinct. Nuno Espírito Santo’s men had scythed through the defensive line enough to set the nerves shaking, while Solskjaer’s side had shown comparatively few signs of breaking down their opposition.
First Half: Manchester United 0 – 0 Wolves
Seeing that Cavani was struggling to best the Wolves defence in the air, Solskjaer opted to replace the crossing-specialist Alex Telles with Luke Shaw after half time, hoping the energetic Englishman would offer greater penetration in the wide areas.
It was a decision that looked to have returned dividends when a Shaw corner ultimately fell at the feet of Cavani, who lashed home from close range. An offside call curtailed the celebrations however, and VAR confirmed the call while also refuting any claim of a Connor Coady handball before Cavani’s shot.
The teams remained well-matched in their quality, and traded chances unsuccessfully despite testing both goalkeepers. Saïss again drew a De Gea save from a looping header, while Paul Pogba launched an effort at the other end that called Patricio into action.
Truthfully, Wolves had enacted their game plan excellently and had fought hard for a share of the points. A winner hardly seemed inevitable as the game wound down, yet a heavy helping of luck was still to intervene and decide an otherwise cagey game.
As the saying goes however, ‘a team must make its own luck’ – and for this, Manchester United have Bruno Fernandes to thank. Being pressed within his own half in the 92nd minute, Fernandes looked to have casually pinged a ball forward in blind hope. It was only as the camera panned to follow the ball that the genius of the pass was realised.
Rashford had been sent in behind the Wolves back line, and after working his way around for a better shooting angle, fired towards Patricio’s net. Saïss, ever-present in his frustrations of both United’s attack and defence, knelt to block the ferocious shot, and could only wrong-foot his own goalkeeper to seal the match for his opposition.
Whether the victory was deserved or not, any discussions will fade away far sooner than the points on United’s tally will.
The best teams in the Premier League find a way to win regardless of how the 90 minutes flow. As talk of a prospective title charge have grown over the past few weeks, there is a sense that it is wins like these that will boost the mentality of the squad more than those achieved through peak performances.
Two points off the top, a practical miracle given the woeful start that culminated in the 6-1 hammering by Spurs. Challenging Liverpool amongst the most competitive Premier League in decades will be no mean feat – but with Fernandes fit, why shouldn’t it be possible?
Full Time: Manchester United 1 – 0 Wolves
Man of the Match: Marcus Rashford