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Five things we’ve learnt from United vs CSKA

3576Manchester United took a potentially decisive step towards reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League after a late Wayne Rooney goal secured a precious 1-0 win against CSKA Moscow.

United looked more enterprising than they had done at any stage against Middlesbrough and Palace but remained too prone to spell of sterile possession, while fans vented their frustrations again as Louis Van Gaal replaced Anthony Martial with Marouane Fellaini.

Here are five talking points from last night.

1) Better start
Having been heavily criticised for their lethargic approach against Crystal Palace on Saturday, United started a lot more brightly on Tuesday, committing men forward and displaying the sort of crisp passing they’ve only seldom put together in 18 months under Louis Van Gaal.

While the goal continued to elude them for 70 minutes,for a while they looked like a different side, stretching CSKA’s defence and creating chances. However, United continue to struggle to get in behind their opponents, meaning that starting with West Brom on Saturday they can expect more teams to come to Old Trafford and sit deep.

United find it hard to break teams down as their sideways passing prevents them from building any momentum, although there was some encouraging signs against CSKA, as Jesse Lingard, Ashley Young and Bastian Schweinsteiger ventured forward with the verve that’s too often been missing this season.

2) Rojo could be an asset

At one stage last summer, Marcos Rojo looked set to bring his United career to an end after just one season . However, the Argentine has made the most of Luke Shaw’s misfortune and looks to have secured himself a spot at left-back. Still prone to the odd defensive lapse, against CSKA Rojo was pleasingly enterprising going forward, overlapping with impeccable regularity on the left and proving to be quite a threat.

Unfortunately for United, he spurned two glorious chances to break the deadlock but it was a promising performance form the Argentina international, who looks increasingly like the player who was a cornerstone of the team that reached the World Cup final in 2014.

3) Wayne Rooney, the dilemma

Wayne Rooney ended the night level with Denis Law in the list of United’s all time goalscorers in European competition – only Ruud Van Nistelrooy has scored more – after netting what could prove to be a crucial goal in United’s quest to reach the knockout stage.

It’s difficult to think of a goal the England striker had needed more throughout his career. Under pressure after a series of abysmal display, the United captain missed the simplest of chances early in the second half as he squandered a tap-in from a few yards out.

After the goal, Rooney looked like a partly revitalised man, with an new-found spring in his step. His goal has spared Louis Van Gaal a lot of questions over Rooney’s continued presence in the starting XI but the jury remains out for the 30-year-old.

Important and well taken as the goal was, it will take a lot more for Rooney to be back to his best.


4) LVG is not afraid to upset fans with his subs

With United chasing the winner and Rooney largely anonymous up-front, Louis Van Gaal opted to replace Anthony Martial with Marouane Fellaini, a decision that was met with loud disapproval.

As it turned out, the Dutchman’s decision was vindicated as CSKA’s defence failed to deal with Fellaini and Rooney scored the winner but Van Gaal took a gamble that could have had serious repercussions had United not got three points last night.

Introducing Fellaini will never get fans off their seats, as for many he still epitomise the travails of David Moyes’ spell in charge, but United fans were right to be disappointed to see Martial withdrawn.

The Frenchman wasn’t at his sparkling best last night, but considering the free ride Rooney’s has received this season, the substitution smacked of double standards. Not that the Dutchman will care one jot, as he was proved right.



5) United defence stays strong

Amid all the focus on United’s ordeals in front of goal, the fact they’ve conceded just one goal in the last six games in all competition has gone largely unnoticed.

On Tuesday night, United very almost impeccable at the back in the first half but would have gone behind in the second half, had it not been for David De Gea and Chris Smalling.

The former produced a couple of smart saves, while the latter’s last ditch tackle kept the score at 0-0 just a few minutes before Rooney scored the winner at the other end.

For all the criticism Van Gaal gets, the way he’s transformed the area that was supposed to be his side’s Achilles heel into their main asset is nothing short of remarkable and nobody epitomises the development more than Chris Smalling, who was superb yet again last night. 

Sir Alex Ferguson used to say that “defences win you titles”. That seems to be United’s best bet this season.