An inspired performance from backup goalkeeper Sergio Romero couldn't spare Manchester United's blushes in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League last-32 tie with Danish side Midtjylland.
Despite a string of fine saves from the Argentinian, United were still beaten 2-1 at the MCH Arena on Thursday night, courtesy of goals from Pione Sisto and substitute Paul Onuachu.
Memphis Depay had opened the scoring for the Red Devils, but it was Romero who kept them in the game, making some memorable stops each side of the break after replacing the injured David De Gea in the starting lineup.
De Gea was withdrawn barely moments before kick-off, after the outstanding stopper was injured in the warm-up, according to BT Sport Football:
In front of Romero, manager Louis van Gaal introduced youngsters Donald Love and Paddy McNair into an injury-hit defence. Van Gaal did ensure the fledglings had experience in front of them in the form of 34-year-old Michael Carrick.
United confirmed the starting XI:
So to confirm, our team is now as follows: Romero, Love, Smalling, McNair, Blind, Herrera, Carrick, Lingard, Mata, Memphis, Martial. #mufc— Manchester United (@ManUtd) February 18, 2016
Midtjylland did the same as they included former Arsenal schemer Kristoffer Olsson:
Romero was quickly called into action, stopping a powerful Kasper Hansen header on the line after 10 minutes, as the home side did the early pressing. It was an impressive reflex stop from De Gea's replacement.
Here's the save, via BT Sport:
Next, it was United's turn to threaten from a set piece when centre-back Chris Smalling flicked a header across goal.
But from open play, United's attacks were stunted. Injuries had made a difference, but players such as Depay and midfield playmaker Ander Herrera were also struggling to impose themselves.
As United continued to waste possession, James Robson of the Manchester Evening News called for more from a key man in the middle:
United need players like Mata to start finding teammates more often— James Robson (@JamesRobsonMEN) February 18, 2016
In the end, it took a goalmouth scramble for United to scrap their way into the lead. A Jesse Lingard cross nearly knocked Depay over in the six-yard area. But as he slipped, the Dutchman just managed to scuff his shot into the ground, enabling the ball to bobble over the line.
Depay's finish continued his decent scoring form against European opponents this season, per Squawka:
Memphis Depay's goals for Man Utd this season have come versus:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 18, 2016
Club Brugge (2) pic.twitter.com/yuPPFUMPeB
Seconds before, Vaclav Kadlec went clean through for the hosts but shot tamely against Romero when he really should have squared the ball on the break.
A Carrick blunder came soon after Depay's opener, as he rolled a pass too far to the side of Herrera deep in United's half. Sisto pounced on the loose ball and rumbled toward goal, eventually equalising from a deflected shot.
As WhoScored.com noted, this competition has been kind to the midfielder this season:
Pione Sisto: Has scored 3 goals in his last 5 Europa League appearances #UEL— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) February 18, 2016
The equaliser clearly rattled United, who looked brighter and more inventive in the early moments of the second half. During this promising spell, both Lingard and Mata missed good chances at the end of decent moves.
The former also saw a volley bounce off the bar, as United's chances began to mount.
Yet despite their chances, the Red Devils continued to look vulnerable on the break. Olsson nearly exposed them when his astute cross found Onuachu in the box. But Romero played hero again by making a fantastic diving save to deny the striker.
Here's the athletic stop:
Romero's excellent form didn't deter the home side from continuing to break with menace. Sisto went close with a curled effort after a typically quick counter.
Midtjylland's pressure eventually told when Mata pulled out of a challenge to allow Onuachu to steal in and glide the ball beyond the unfortunate Romero.
Van Gaal was quick to blame the club's growing injury list for United's disappointing showing, per BT Sport:
But midfielder Carrick was in no mood to blame outside factors as he offered a blunt assessment of the state of things at United, according to Squawka News:
Michael Carrick: "It's just not good enough, it's not acceptable. It's got to get a lot better."— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) February 18, 2016
Same old story. pic.twitter.com/xonzOjHn3h
Van Gaal also offered an update on his injured goalkeeper, via Samuel Luckhurst of the Manchester Evening News:
Van Gaal tells BT Sport De Gea has a knee problem. Scan tomorrow. #mufc— Samuel Luckhurst (@samuelluckhurst) February 18, 2016
Another defeat is bad news for under-pressure gaffer Van Gaal. His depleted squad is lacking match-winners in forward areas.
Van Gaal will surely play up his side's priceless away goal ahead of the second meeting at Old Trafford. However, United must be wary of how dangerous the Danes look on the break. Being caught cold on home soil would be the death knell for United's European campaign.