Manchester United battle back to beat Juventus with a spirited display that coursed with the passions of old
First the guts, then the glory. As the winning goal nestled in the Juventus net after an interminable delay and an epic journey of ricochets, wild swings and pregnant pauses that resembled some of their recent bus arrivals, Manchester United finally had their moment of jubilee.
In an instant, the bruises stopped throbbing. The lungs stopped aching. And for the 3,828 United fans that had made the journey over to Turin, a rush that will have awakened some long-dormant emotions of a team, and a club, that used to win like this all the time.
It was an away performance to sit alongside their famous triumph here in 1999: not necessarily in terms of quality or occasion, but in terms of collective spirit. Because – and let’s not mince our words here – United aren’t actually all that good. Seventh place in the Premier League doesn’t really do them a disservice. There have been points this season when they have played like a pub team. But through it all, as the storm gathered and the ghosts of the Mourinho third season pounded at the door, it turned out they had this in them all along.
Two late goals – a set piece and a goalmouth scramble – might suggest a smash-and-grab. So might the statistics: Juventus with 55 per cent of possession, 23 shots to eight, enough chances to put the game to bed long before Juan Mata hauled United back into it. In fact, United truly earned this one: not for the last four minutes, but for the previous 86. Having gone behind to a moment of pure explosion from Cristiano Ronaldo, they redoubled their efforts, ran themselves dry and with one last heave, knocked over a Juventus team that had lost here just nine times in seven years.
As the teams trooped off at the break, Victor Lindelof punched the air with both fists in celebration. No, it wasn’t his half-time accumulator coming through; he had just pulled off a goal-saving clearance on the stroke of the whistle, by putting his head in the sort of area where heads tend not to fare too well. And it was emblematic of a United performance in which they were, above all, willing to suffer.
There will be some sore joints in the morning. It was a scintillating, concussive sort of game, but the sort that supporters adore more than any stroll in the park. It was Ashley Young steaming in on Alex Sandro early in the second half, stealing a ball he had no right to steal, injuring himself in the process but also setting off Alexis Sanchez on the counter. It was Luke Shaw heroically inviting a clash of heads with Juan Cuadrado as he stooped to clear a cross.
It was Jesse Lingard putting in a big reducer on Ronaldo within the first eight minutes that scandalised the crowd and set United on the attack. It was Nemanja Matic scything down Paulo Dybala from behind: a yellow card, but also a warning shot. It was Sanchez, leading the line in the absence of Romelu Lukaku, not just charging down Wojciech Szczesny but directing his team-mates to join him, in a rare and highly unusual event: the Manchester United press.
United: pressing! It was like seeing your grandparents using Skype for the first time. And all over the pitch, United looked like the sort of team they had so infrequently threatened to be over the last few years. Nor were their scrapping skills deployed purely in defence: it was Sanchez and Paul Pogba exchanging skill moves on the edge of the Juventus area, Anthony Martial curling the ball just wide after a move of perhaps 25 passes, the urgency with which United raised the tempo in those final minutes, a new team raging with the passions of the old.
It wasn’t the perfect performance, by any stretch. We can’t call it a watershed moment just yet. But it was a start. It was, perhaps, the first stirring twinges of the United its fans so desperately want them to be: confident, determined, streetwise, restless, relentless, and against a club in Juventus who already possess all these qualities in abundance.
And on a chilly night on foreign soil, United gave us a brief and tantalising glimpse of just how good they could be when it all comes together.