Anthony Martial scored a priceless away goal to secure a 1-1 draw in the first leg of Manchester United’s Europa League round of 32 tie against Club Brugge.
The Frenchman took advantage of a Brugge mistake to slot home nine minutes before the interval, cancelling out Emmanuel Dennis’s opener.
Martial’s goal came against the run of play, with the Reds on the ropes for much of the first half, but United rallied after the equaliser, with our no.9 striking a post with our best opportunity to secure a lead to take back to Old Trafford.
With less than 72 hours between Monday’s win at Stamford Bridge and this tie, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took the opportunity to rotate his side.
Out went David De Gea, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Eric Bailly, Fred, Bruno Fernandes and Daniel James, perhaps with Sunday’s Premier League match at home to Watford in mind.
Those six were replaced by Sergio Romero, Diogo Dalot, Victor Lindelof, Juan Mata, Andreas Pereira and, making his 200th appearance for the Reds, Jesse Lingard.
In the type of wet and windy conditions which have plagued us back home in recent weeks, the hosts had the first real opening.
Dennis beat Harry Maguire and then Romero to the ball on the right of the United box before squaring, but thankfully Lindelof, playing his 100th Reds game, was on hand to prevent the incoming Maxim de Cuyper from scoring.
VAR – not in use during the knockout stages of the Europa League – went back to check for a potential penalty for Romero’s attempt to challenge Dennis, but decided it wasn’t clear and obvious.
The lively Dennis was showing signs of his raw pace and ability and, after Pereira had seen his low shot well saved by Simon Mignolet, the Nigerian opened the scoring on 15 minutes.
Mignolet’s long punt forward caught Diogo Dalot and Brandon Williams unawares as Brugge’s onrushing no.42 found space between the pair before deftly lobbing Romero to send the home fans wild.
Buoyed by the strike, the Belgian league leaders then had United under the cosh during a spell of concerted pressure which culminated with Mats Rits’s shot drifting narrowly wide of the target.
The Reds were struggling to deal with Brugge’s lively young forwards and we had Romero to thank for diverting Dennis’s shot wide with his body, at the end of an opening half an hour to forget.
No matter how you perform, though, away goals are the key currency in Europe and Martial reacted quickest to capitalise on a mistake from the hosts to put United back in the tie on 36 minutes.
De Cuyper’s throw-in had too much pace on it for Mechele, and the Frenchman outpaced Brugge’s no.44 before slotting the ball calmly past Mignolet and into the bottom right-hand corner.
The goal, Martial’s 14th of the season, clearly gave the Reds confidence and we ended the first half in the ascendancy, with Brandon Williams spurning a glorious opportunity when shooting high and wide from an advanced position on the left and Martial rattling the post with a fine effort.
Despite their strong showing in the opening 45 minutes, the hosts appeared a little nervy after the break, with a misplaced pass almost gifting United a second.
Juan Mata was the initial beneficiary and the Spaniard played Martial in, but perhaps didn’t expect the Frenchman to try and return the favour and the ball hit a Brugge defender and ended up safely ensconced in Mignolet’s arms.
Brugge have lost just twice at home all season, to Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid and, just a minute later, showed how dangerous they could be at the other end, as Romero was once again forced to get down and save from Dennis.
With Solskjaer perhaps sensing an opportunity to travel back to Manchester with a first-leg lead, Odion Ighalo was summoned off the bench to make his first European appearance for the Reds, after a brief cameo at Stamford Bridge.
Jesse Lingard tries to manouevre the ball beyond Odilon Kossounou.
It was Ighalo’s fellow countryman Dennis who continued to cause all the problems though, squaring for Odilon Kossonou, who somehow missed the target with the goal gaping 12 minutes before the end.
Fred and Bruno Fernandes were also introduced as the second half wore on, with the latter’s swap with Diogo Dalot necessitating a change in formation, as Williams shuffled across to the right.
Fernandes drove United forward as we once again took hold of the game, with Mata seeing his shot saved by Mignolet, albeit after having been in an offside position.
The Reds tried their best to test the former Sunderland and Liverpool keeper further but, with Ighalo’s spectacular attempt at an overhead kick not quite paying dividends and Lingard unable to generate the necessary power with an effort from distance, the sides were forced to settle for a draw, with all to play for a week today in Manchester.
Brugge: Mignolet; Kossounou, Mata, Deli, Mechele, De Cuyper (Schrijvers 73); Balanta (Vormer 46), Rits, Vanaken (c); Tau (De Ketelaere 62), Dennis.
Subs not used: Horvath, Okereke, Mitrovic, Ricca.
Goal: Dennis 15
Booked: Balanta, Balanta, Mechele
United: Romero; Dalot (Fernandes 81), Lindelof, Maguire (c), Shaw, Williams; Mata, Matic, Andreas (Fred 71); Lingard, Martial (Ighalo 67).
Subs not used: De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Bailly, James.
Goal: Martial 36
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