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Shambolic Manchester United drop to Europa League and Thursday nights

Wolfsburg 3 - Man Utd 2

By Ian Herbert

The brief flickers of hope kept on coming but there was no holding off the fate which befell Manchester United, who were the second best side on the night and have not even been able to call themselves that across the course of a very modest Champions League qualification group. Elimination.

In a wild last 15 minutes their small enclave of supporters were lifted by news that CSKA Moscow had mustered a goal to save United in Eindhoven, and then one of Wolfsburg's own - defender Joshua Guilavogui - supplied an own-goal to draw Louis van Gaal's men level at 2-2.

But then they conceded again, just as PSV Eindhoven turned their night around. Van Gaal's deadpan powers prevailed to the end but the ignominy this constitutes cannot be masked by any claim that the Premier League matters more.

Couldn't defend and struggled to score - that's all that can be said of a night which was as bad as it comes for a manager whose spending has exceeded £200m.

This time Van Gaal cannot even parade the defensive integrity which he has brought at the expense of creative expression which was almost entirely absent again until the side's Champions League campaign was all but extinguished.

Now for the worst of all worlds: a Europa League campaign which has the potential to make the side's drive for the Premier League far more difficult.

United chiefs found themselves plunged into anxiety, wondering if the absence of defensive cover which forced a debut for the Uruguayan signed by David Moyes two years ago would work. It didn't, in fact.

Guillermo Varela, the defender in question, had impressed Zinedine Zidane last season on loan at Real Madrid B but the contest between him and Andre Schurrle resembled one of those twitchy nights on the continent watching Rafael's eccentricities.

The game was in its first three minutes when Varela drifted inside, neglecting to see Schurrle waiting to receive a golden opportunity but place a half-volley over.

There would be more discomfort for the defender.

When Anthony Martial scored his first goal in 10 games, 10 minutes in, it ought to have taken all the worry away. When Juan Mata was allowed to drive a ball into the area for him, Martial's run bisected the central defenders and he slotted home.

But it was another of those occasions when the intermittent chances - the Marouane Fellaini header into the turf which Diego Benaglio flipped away and the Jesse Lingard half-chance curled straight at the goalkeeper - needed to be converted because they were few and far between.

The home side trailed for the mere three minutes it took their captain Naldo to get a run on Daley Blind and meet Ricardo Rodriguez's free-kick from 20 yards with a sumptuous first-time volley.

And then came the kind of move which the United support have come to yearn for, a driving run at the defence from Julian Draxler after Schurrle had switched the play with Varela trailing behind him.

The 22-year-old German eased past two players with ease, executed a gorgeous one-two with Max Kruse, drew David de Gea and squared for the Portugeuse Vieirinha to walk it in.

United left the field bitterly aggrieved to have been denied their own equaliser - a Lingard strike from the left which sailed in on the stroke of half time. There was with no indication from the linesman for 20 seconds that Mata, offside and in the goalkeeper's eyeline, affected play. But the decision stood.

Matteo Darmian's injury minutes before half-time compounded the defensive trouble, with replacement Cameron Borthwick-Jackson having had just 14 minutes experience to his name.

But though there was greater urgency about United - Michael Carrick came on for an insignificant Bastian Schweinsteiger and one desperate six-yard box attempt by Mata to convert - it was De Gea who was plunged into making two saves.

He scooped a ball out from under the bar after Schurrle had done Varela once again and then made a reflex stop to prevent what would have been a Lingard own-goal.

Then came Moscow's goal and United's improbable equaliser - Guilavogui heading into his own net as he tried to clear.

Parity was pitifully short before reality bit. Wolfsburg stormed up to the other end of the field, where Naldo met a corner from the left with a downward header. It beat the dive of De Gea and Blind's desperate attempt to hack it off the line came to nothing.

Still, United tried to conjure something. But the urgency came too late. United received what their tournament has merited.

Wolfsburg: Benaglio, Träsch, Naldo, Dante, Rodríguez (Schäfer 16), Draxler (Caligiuri 85), Guilavogui, Vieirinha (Klose 78), Arnold, Schürrle, Kruse.

Goals: Rodrigues 13, 84, Vierinha 29 Subs not used: Bendtner, Dost, Jung, Casteels.

Man Utd: De Gea, Varela, Smalling, Blind, Darmian (Borthwick-Jackson 43), Schweinsteiger (Carrick 69), Fellaini, Lingard, Mata (Powell 69), Depay, Martial.

Goals: Martial 10, Guilavogui (og) 82. Subs not used: Young, Romero, McNair, Pereira. Man of the match: Naldo (pictured) Match rating: 8/10

Referee: Milorad Mazic (Serbia).

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