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MOTD: Manchester United 0-0 Middlesbrough (1-3 on pens)
It has only been four days since Wayne Rooney turned thirty and already the critics are predicting his imminent fall from grace. Tonight, the Englishman had another one of his flaws scrutinized as Manchester United exited the Capital One Cup on penalties at the hands of Middlesbrough, following their second scoreless draw in four days. Rooney’s penalty conversion rate in the Premier League is a miserly sixty-nine percent and he was even shifted to the end of United’s penalty-taking list after having a spot-kick saved against Liverpool in March. Van Gaal’s risk of putting him back in the top of the order to take his first club penalty since backfired as Rooney’s poor spot-kick was blocked by Tomas Mejias.
Of course, Rooney’s part in United’s shootout loss has been overstated. In keeping with the extraordinary twists and turns throughout one-hundred-and-twenty minutes of open play, David Nugent skied his spot-kick after Rooney missed and Andreas Pereira pulled United level. Yet Michael Carrick blazed his effort over and Ashley Young had his effort saved before was the shootout was well and truly beyond United.
United’s inability to finish haunted them throughout the hundred-and-twenty minutes of open play as well. Van Gaal made nine changes to the lineup that drew Manchester City 0-0 over the weekend, but only Pereira, the youngest of United’s squad members, had the nerve to convert his penalty kick. Memphis Depay, who has been dropped to the bench in recent weeks, stood out for all the wrong reasons and James Wilson, who was substituted for Rooney at the half, didn’t solve United’s finishing woes either.
In all other respects, however, United’s draw tonight was of a different nature than their weekend foray. The game was riddled with errors but at the same time showcased brilliant moments of class and had the odd dynamic of a lightweight quarterfinal cup tie. In the hundred-and-fifteenth minute, Emilio Nsue was cocky enough to start showboating down the right wing, loose control of the ball and attempt to resurrect the chance with an unsuccessful and very obvious attempt to nutmeg Ashley Young; but less than ten minutes later a crash of a million frustrated Tweeters came down upon Rooney for missing his penalty.
“Sometimes it can be easy playing games against teams in your own league because the game can be more open,” explained Chris Smalling, per United’s official website. “But we had to take that challenge on because we’re the bigger team and they’re going to come here and be more defensive.
“It’s our job to break them down and we couldn’t do it in normal or extra time, and when you get to penalties it’s anyone’s luck.”
Van Gaal used the opportunity to uncover a disconnect in United’s attacking force, evident from the very beginning. The home side failed to carve a shot on target until the thirty-fifth minute, when Wilson poked a tame, bobbling shot from fifteen yards into the arms of Mejias. Credit is also due to Middlesbrough’s back-line, which was lead by a stellar performance from Daniel Ayala.
The visitors threatened on the break on numerous occasions, with Aitor Karanka’s men shepherding a half-cleared free-kick back into the box in the fifteenth minute, where Nsue scuffed an acrobatic over-head kick. The ball fell to George Friend, whose poked effort at the far post was blocked by Sergio Romero’s kick-save. In the forty-first minute, Stewart Downing saw his stinging thirty-yard effort tipped over the crossbar by Romero and the Argentine goalkeeper was in blushes on the other side of the half, when the simplest of back-passes rolled right under his foot and onto the base of the post.
Mejias was also spared a howler as Depay’s long-range effort squirmed under the goalkeeper, only for the ex-Real Madrid stopper to scramble back and claw the ball off the line.
Each side was afforded more and more space as the game wore on after a tight, uninspiring first half and the game quickly resembled a classic end-to-end cup tie. Marouane Fellaini and Jesse Lingard, United’s brightest spark on the attack, both saw twenty-five yard efforts comfortably saved buy Mejias and Van Gaal then thew on Ashley Young and Anthony Martial in the hope of finding a winner.
United had multiple penalty shouts on either side of the seventieth minute and as the clock wound down, the Red Devils made one last push to set up a hectic finale. In the eighty-ninth minute, Lingard sliced a wicked side-volley onto the inside of the post from Young’s far-post cross, only for Middlesbrough to go right down the other end. Leadbitter was slipped through on goal, yet Romero came up big to stop the forward’s attempted chip. In the first of three minutes of stoppage time, the ball fell to Kike fifteen yards out from goal, where the midfielder spanked a low half-volley on goal, to be parried away by Romero at full-stretch.
The match moved into extra-time but United still couldn’t find the back the net. Pereira drilled a low effort just wide of the post in the hundred-and-sixteenth minute and with seconds left to go, Young whipped in a cross to the far post, where Lingard was at hand to nod the ball back across goal to Martial, who somehow flicked a diving header wide of the post from six yards. “It was just one of those nights” for Rooney and co., harked co-commentators across the world as United fell to their Championship opponents on penalties, but with a single goal marking their past three matches, those nights are compiling on an all too frequently for United at the moment.
“Last year, we were out of this cup already, in the first match, 4-0 [lost to Milton Keynes Dons],” said Van Gaal. “Now we are in the final 16 and we had to win. But, okay, we were not lucky. I have to say you have to force the luck. Against Manchester City, we were also not lucky but I cannot repeat that every week that we’re not lucky. You have to force the luck.”
Homepage photo credit: Ian C, via Flickr