BERN, Switzerland—With Cristiano Ronaldo back at Manchester United, missing out on the Champions League knockout rounds for a third straight season is unthinkable.
Yet the same kind of problems carried over from last season’s failed campaign to the one that started badly Tuesday in Switzerland—errors in defense plus lapses of discipline leading to an ill-timed red card.
Even new signings Ronaldo and Raphaël Varane—four-time Champions League winners together at Real Madrid—could not save the stellar and expensively assembled Man United team from defeat against unheralded Young Boys.
Instead, it was another 2-1 loss at the lowest-ranked team in its group.
“We did that last year in Europe,” United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said, recalling “two sloppy counter attacks against (Istanbul) Başakşehir. And we lost that game (Tuesday) in the last seconds.”
A slack backpass in stoppage time by Jesse Lingard, a substitute who replaced Ronaldo, gifted the chance that American forward Jordan Siebatcheu took to win the game for Young Boys.
“That’s football for you at the highest level,” Solskjaer said. “Lack of concentration, make a mistake and you get punished.”
The Premier League leaders had been under pressure from the 35th minute when defender Aaron Wan-Bissaka was sent off for a hard foul. Leading 1-0 from Ronaldo’s 13th-minute strike, Man United failed to get a shot on goal the rest of the way.
The red card helped tilt the game away from the three-time European champions just as it did last year when midfielder Fred was sent off against Paris Saint-Germain. That turned an evenly poised game into a 3-1 loss at Old Trafford last November, and gave back the gains from starting the group by winning in Paris.
“Everyone thought we were through after two games last year,” recalled Solskjaer, whose team also routed Leipzig 5-0 last October then lost the decisive last group game in Germany.
The story of Solksjaer’s managing in the Champions League has been highs and lows with little middle ground. His team was twice triumphant at PSG — including in the round of 16 in March 2019—but has now lost seven of 11 matches.
“We know we have given ourselves a more difficult task than what we did last year,” Solskjaer said. “You need 10, maybe 12 points. You need to win your home games. We have got two home games next and we have got to focus on them.”
That next opponent on Sept. 29 is a Unai Emery-coached Villarreal team unlikely to be intimidated after beating Man United in the Europa League final in May. A switch to the second-tier competition was the consequence for placing third behind PSG and Leipzig.
Ronaldo has never played in the Europa League for Man United, Real Madrid or Juventus. He did play two games in its predecessor, the UEFA Cup, in 2002 as a 17-year-old youngster for Sporting Lisbon.
Now with a Champions League record 135 goals in a record-equaling 177 games, Ronaldo has time to steer his teammates back on course in a competition he helped the club win in 2008.
“It’s fortunate that it is the first game of the group,” United captain Harry Maguire said, “and we have loads of time to bounce back from it.”
Image courtesy of Peter Klaunzer