Manchester United 1 Copenhagen 0
Manchester United had no other choice. They simply had to win – and not only to honour the memory of arguably their greatest ever player. This Champions League showpiece was the night when the Old Trafford congregation came together to remember Sir Bobby Charlton, who passed away on Saturday. The club pitched the pre-match ceremony with sensitivity and class.
After defeats in their opening two Group A ties, Erik ten Hag could not countenance a misfire against FC Copenhagen, the well-drilled Danish league leaders. Almost in spite of themselves, United got the job done – because, make no mistake, they were a pale imitation of their best selves for long spells, especially in the first half.
With Christian Eriksen to the fore after his half-time introduction, Ten Hag’s team were better, more purposeful and front-footed, and they just about deserved the win, which was delivered by an unlikely scorer. Or maybe not, given that Harry Maguire has now started and played well in three straight games for United. He was also good for England in their win over Italy last week.
It was Eriksen who made the goal, whipping over a lovely cross from the right after Copenhagen had only half-cleared a corner and there was Maguire, powering in front of Rasmus Falk, to head home. Maguire whipped up the crowd, made a heart with his hands and beat the badge on his chest.
But in an extraordinary finish Jordan Larsson’s injury time penalty was saved by André Onana to prevent Copenhagen from equalising.
It was always going to be emotional. “Loved, Adored, Never Forgotten,” read the message on the card with the wreath that was placed on Charlton’s seat in the directors’ box and, if the pre-match tribute was simple, it was nicely done. The bagpiper tugged hard on the heart-strings as he played on his walk to the centre circle.
The travelling Copenhagen fans were boisterous, taunting their United counterparts in English at times; always a fun touch. “Who are ya?” they wanted to know. What was beautiful was the banner that they unfurled. “Passion is what separates the good from the great. Rest in peace, Sir Bobby Charlton.”
It was always possible that the occasion would be a difficult one for United to handle, particularly this United, and it was impossible to dress it up any other way – they were awful at the outset; passive, error strewn, fortunate not to concede early.
Copenhagen were able to move the ball at ease, under little pressure and, when Sofyan Amrabat hesitated and Maguire lost out to Mohamed Elyounoussi, the former Southampton winger was away. From his cross, Diogo Gonçalves timed his run to guide a volley against the post. United just about resisted after the rebound.
Onana had set the tone when he dived at full stretch in the second minute for an Elias Achouri shot, which was clearly going yards wide. At first, it looked as though he was just covering himself and his post, and it was strange when the referee gave a corner. Had there been a deflection? No, Onana really had tipped it behind.
Ten Hag recalled the fit-again Sergio Reguilón and Raphaël Varane in defence while he persisted with Scott McTominay in midfield. Maguire could feel a show of support; he appears to have muscled his way ahead of Victor Lindelöf in the pecking order.
United stabilised a little after the jitters of the opening 15 minutes but it was hard to see what the plan was in an attacking sense leading up to the interval. Rasmus Højlund, up against his first professional club, looked United’s best bet, willing and aggressive at the tip of the formation.
It was horribly flat and predictable, the crowd responding to the half-time whistle with boos. That the referee called a halt to it 20 seconds early was a mercy. United offered next to nothing in creative terms in the first half and, if Onana’s distribution was erratic, the passing from those in front of him was no better. Reguilón had a glorious opportunity to send Marcus Rashford clean through on the counter in the 44th minute and it was not a difficult pass to make. But instead of playing it into the space in front of Rashford, he undercooked it.
“Is it always this bad?” asked a Scandinavian journalist at half-time. United badly needed to raise the tempo; to find some penetration. Ten Hag introduced Christian Eriksen for the off-colour Amrabat and United would survive again when Viktor Claesson broke and cut back for Lukas Lerager, no red shirt having tracked him. Onana clawed the shot just past the post.
Højlund flickered, going close after a chest touch and burst, and it was his lay-off following a Rashford cut-back that teed up Eriksen on 54 minutes. Kamil Grabara was equal to the shot; it was an excellent low save.
Rashford almost got through with some electric running but his wires were crossed on one occasion, his touch jarringly heavy, while the substitute, Alejandro Garnacho, fluffed a glorious one-on-one opportunity after Bruno Fernandes had released him. Again, the decisive touch was all wrong when it most mattered.