Manchester United grateful to Chris Smalling as they see off Wolfsburg

For a while Manchester United briefly threatened to add their name to what had hitherto been an undistinguished week for English teams in Europe’s premier club competition.

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They were losing, almost before they had the chance to work up a proper sweat, and in those moments it was not particularly easy to understand how Bastian Schweinsteiger, a man who knows a thing or two about winning the Champions League, had suggested Louis van Gaal’s team were equipped to go all the way.

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By the end, it still seemed suspiciously like a new player trying to say the right things without anything that could be really considered hard evidence. Yet it did end up as a demonstration of how, slowly but surely, Van Gaal has brought back some of the old sturdiness, and when Juan Mata shimmers with this menace it should at least encourage United to feel they can navigate a passage safely through Group B.

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Mata’s penalty drew them level on a splendid night for the Spaniard and there was a touch of improvisational brilliance about the way he set up the decisive goal for Chris Smalling. That came eight minutes into the second half and, after that, a mix of spirited and occasionally chaotic defending ensured the home side did not surrender their position.

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Wolfsburg applied some concerted pressure and Van Gaal seemed startled about the way his side lost their rhythm. Equally, there was plenty to admire, too, about the robust response to the early setback and Mata’s performance was conceivably his outstanding contribution yet in United’s colours.

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As well as his goal, and the expertly delivered flick for Smalling, the statistics later showed Mata’s passing accuracy was a staggering 98%. Perhaps the oddest moment of the night came afterwards when Van Gaal was invited to praise Mata’s performance and looked bewildered. “Why? Because of his penalty? I have seen Mata play better than today.” Whenever it was, it must have been some performance.

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The downside for Van Gaal was the lack of structure towards the end of the match, though there were mitigating factors given the experimental nature of his defence. Antonio Valencia started as right-back but was at fault for the goal, playing Daniel Caligiuri onside, and a bad night for the Ecuadorian ended with him being withdrawn at half-time. “We had to stop the crosses,” an unsympathetic Van Gaal explained.

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Ashley Young came on and it was a surprise, perhaps, that Van Gaal put him in Valencia’s position rather than moving Matteo Darmian back to his usual role. The Italian was used instead on the left, where he does not look so assured, and United were also fortunate in the closing stages that Morgan Schneiderlin was not sent off. Viktor Kassai, the Hungarian referee, infuriated the home crowd at times but Schneiderlin ought to have been shown a second yellow card for clipping the heels of the elusive Julian Draxler six minutes from the end.

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Van Gaal, clearly unenthused by the team’s performance, cannot have missed another limited performance from Wayne Rooney, most notable for a fairly dreadful shot when Anthony Martial’s quick feet and directness gave him a chance after 20 minutes.

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By that time, Wolfsburg had surprised Old Trafford with a lovely, incisive move, originating with Caligiuri’s diagonal run, from left to right, and a neat change in direction that took him between Schneiderlin and Darmian. Caligiuri turned the ball back to Draxler but continued his own run and when the pass came back to him via Max Kruse he was onside with the time and space to guide his shot beyond David de Gea.

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The most encouraging aspect for the Old Trafford crowd is that when United go behind there is now the clear sense they are able to get it out of their system much quicker than at other times since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.

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Mata was the most likely source to find a way back into the match and when he cut in from the right, after 34 minutes, two Wolfsburg players went to close him down. Caligiuri was one of them and the goalscorer jutted out his left arm as the cross came in to give away a soft penalty. Mata has replaced Rooney as United’s designated penalty-taker, steering this one to the left of Diego Benaglio, then tucking the ball under his arm and sprinting back to the centre-circle like a man who meant business.

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Van Gaal was clearly aggrieved afterwards about the frequency with which his team lost the ball but in the midst of his withering critique, he did talk of it being “beautiful goal” to give them the lead. Young’s cross was headed out before Bastian Schweinsteiger’s miskick spun in Mata’s direction and the Spaniard’s unorthodox flick hooked the ball over Wolfsburg’s defence. Smalling had anticipated Mata turning the ball on and slid in to turn it past the oncoming Benaglio.

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De Gea had to save from Caligiuri during the closing stages, whereas Rooney blocked a goal-bound effort from Dante and the substitute Andre Schürrle fired narrowly wide. “I cannot understand how we gave the ball away so much,” Van Gaal grizzled, “but the team spirit kept us in the match.” United held out and their position in Group B, with back-to-back games against CSKA Moscow to follow, suddenly looks much better.

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