Manchester United’s European dream collapses with defeat to Bayern

Harry Kane sees his shot blocked by Bruno Fernandes. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Anything is possible, Erik ten Hag had claimed, if Manchester United brought their A-game. And yet it still felt outlandish to really believe they were about to beat Bayern Munich, let alone have the other Group A game, between Copenhagen and Galatasaray, end in a draw; the double whammy to save their skin.

United, after all, have not beaten a top-ranked team during this traumatic season. They have won only once against opponents that currently sit in the top half of the Premier League – and that was 10th-placed Fulham.

They were not terrible, they tried their best, they were not blown away by the champions of Germany. These are the kind of positives for which their fans must scrape. They were just nowhere near good enough. It was a night when they barely laid a glove on a Bayern team that operated within themselves, when the distance to the very top was mapped out in front of a subdued and resigned Old Trafford crowd.

Bayern ensured they did not run the risk of being floored by a United slingshot when they scored in the 70th minute. Harry Kane manipulated a superb pass through for Kingsley Coman to finish after Bayern had probed on the edge of the area, leaving United to pick through the wreckage of a disastrous return to Europe’s elite competition.

The damage had been done in the previous group games when United threw away the lead twice against Galatasaray at home and Copenhagen away to lose. They then did likewise with a two-goal advantage twice en route to a draw at Galatasaray. They have been damned by the numbers. They scored three times in each away tie and took a single point. They finished with 15 goals against. Here, they mustered only four shots at goal, one on target, in a game they needed to win. Then there have been the gruesome individual errors, the vulnerability, the lack of control.

There were boos from the crowd as their players rocked on to their haunches at full time and a chorus, in perfect English, from the travelling Bayern fans. “You’re shit and you know you are.”

It had been the soundtrack from them before kick-off on a night when their team settled ominously quickly. Thomas Tuchel had gone with his strongest available lineup, despite Bayern having already qualified as group winners, while there was a patched up feel to United, who the bookmakers had at 10-1 to progress. It was not only about Bayern seeking to extend their group stage record, which now stands at 40 games unbeaten. It was about them showing who they were after Saturday’s 5-1 humbling at Eintracht Frankfurt.

Ten Hag’s big move was to recall Raphaël Varane in central defence, giving him his first football since 11 November. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were ill, adding to the seven injury-enforced absentees while Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw would be forced off with muscular problems. Ten Hag finished with Jonny Evans and Sofyan Amrabat in central defence. Next up? Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday.

Bayern passed and passed. And when United had the ball, they made life extremely difficult for them. Rasmus Højlund’s battle with Dayot Upamecano looked more like a wrestling contest at times and it was one that the United striker lost comprehensively.

The worry for Ten Hag was in the centre because Bayern not only had Jamal Musiala and Kane moonlighting there, they had their wingers slicing inside. For example, Leroy Sané on 27 minutes. He swapped passes with Musiala and glided into a seam of space, leaving red shirts in his wake before Maguire stepped in. The ball broke to Musiala and Diogo Dalot did well to snuff him out.

Kingsley Coman scores the only goal of the game to beat Manchester United. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images/Reuters

United measured their first-half progress in defensive discipline, in tackles and blocks, rather than anything they were able to offer in the final third. Shaw had United’s only blast at goal, which Manuel Neuer dealt with easily.

Bayern could not find the decisive touch before the interval. André Onana had a regulation save to make from Kane while Bayern twice almost got in up the flanks. Noussair Mazraoui missed Sané in the middle after a Kane pass up the channel and it was a cross that Mazraoui will feel he might have made. Then there was a Coman delivery that he whipped over Dalot but Sané could not set his feet for the volley.

United had to find something and it was the substitute, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who nearly did so early in the second half, cutting back smartly from the byline for Bruno Fernandes, who blazed high from the edge of the penalty area.

The Old Trafford crowd stirred and it was impossible to ignore Tuchel raging on the touchline at his players. He could feel that they were lacking full focus. Which was understandable and, for him, unacceptable.

United stepped higher at the start of the second half and there was another whiff of a chance for Fernandes 25 yards out. He dragged wide. The news of Copenhagen’s goal in the 58th minute was a mood killer but United had to concentrate on what they could influence. Briefly, with Bayern rather going through the motions, the thought occurred there could be something in this for them. They might need only one moment.

The same thing, though, was true for Bayern. Coman provided it and the scoreline might have better reflected their comfort had Kane not been narrowly off target with a late header.