Eight talking points from Nicosia
Manchester United had substitutes Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial to thank, as we overcame a couple of scares to beat Omonia Nicosia 3-2 in the Europa League.
Erik ten Hag's side were confronted with the prospect of a shock defeat following Karim Ansarifard's opener, which came against the run of play, but a brace from Rashford either side of Martial's well-taken strike turned the game on its head, prior to Nikolaos Panagiotou’s late consolation.
Here are some of the top talking points we noticed from Nicosia...
When the team was announced at 16:30 BST, it was clear United meant business. Weeks ago, at the time of the draw, some may have viewed this as the game to blood youngsters, but the home defeat to Real Sociedad has magnified the importance of the double-headers with Sheriff and Omonia – we don’t face La Real again until matchday six – meaning there isn’t a lot of room for error if we want to secure top spot in the group and avoid a round-of-32 play-off against a side dropping out of the Champions League groups. Eight of the line-up for the Manchester derby kept their place in the side, and Victor Lindelof, Casemiro and Cristiano Ronaldo are hugely experienced players to bring in.
In the afternoon, building up to the game, locals were telling us all about Omonia’s fans and how ‘crazy’ – to put it in their words! – they are. A few fireworks launched outside the ground aside, they were actually fairly reserved, at least until an hour before kick-off. Then the fun started. The Omonia goalkeeper, Fabiano, and his reserves trotted out to warm up and the green-and-white end behind the goal suddenly came alive, jumping up and down in unison to greet their heroes. United, meanwhile, were met with a barrage of whistles and boos. The Omonia-supporting journalist in the press box next to me assured me this was nothing: he was right. The noise at kick-off was earsplitting, helped along by more pyrotechnics as three-and-a-half stands tried their very best to intimidate their visitors from England.
GREEN WALL WITHSTANDS RED WAVE
United dominated possession in the early stages, with David De Gea an onlooker and Omonia clear in their tactics – a back five with a low block, making it hard for the Reds to find space in the final third and break the lines. Erik ten Hag’s side were perhaps guilty of moving the ball too slowly at times, although there were still plenty of promising moments and a handful of opportunities for United to take an early lead. Ronaldo stung the palms of Fabiano, Antony spurned a gilt-edged chance when squaring to Bruno Fernandes instead of shooting and the latter then hit the crossbar with a delicate chip. Antony looked to have repeated his brilliant goal from the weekend when unleashing a left-footed jaffa towards the top corner, but Fabiano clawed it away. You sensed a goal was coming, but when it arrived it went to the home side – Karim Ansarifard rifling into the roof of the net with Omonia’s first shot on target and first touch in our box.
RASHFORD SPARKS REACTION
The goal came out of nothing, but it visibly boosted the confidence of the home side and their fervent following and it took a couple of changes at half-time for United to regain our first-half dominance. Luke Shaw and Rashford entered the fray and it was the latter who curled home our equaliser on 53 minutes. Bruno Fernandes did brilliantly to spot that the long, raking pass was on. Rashford didn’t take it cleanly, but he was offered a second helping by Nemanja Miletic’s miscontrol and he made no mistake with his effort, with Fabiano unable to save this time.
Andy Mitten's travel diary: Omonia Nicosia
United fan and football writer Andy Mitten catches up with some fellow Reds ahead of the Omonia game in Cyprus...
TONY TURNS IT AROUND
Martial’s cameo off the bench was the one bright spot in United’s derby defeat, with the Frenchman scoring twice on the other side of the city after a month-long injury lay-off. Tony is clearly eager to make up for lost time and he made it on to the scoresheet even more quickly this time, following his introduction for Fernandes. The ball was worked forward and Rashford flicked it on for Martial, who drove in from the left before finding the bottom corner with a swing of his right boot. Three goals in just 77 minutes of first-team football this season? C’est magnifique.
WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER SUBS?
The contributions of Rashford and Martial need no embellishment, especially after the former netted our third, but it would be remiss not to mention the other three replacements too. Shaw – allowed free reign as Omonia remained reluctant to commit men forward – almost laid one on a plate for Ronaldo, while Fred provided his usual tenacity in the middle of the park. Scott McTominay was also introduced in the closing stages and, while it was perhaps a little disappointing not to see at least one of Alejandro Garnacho, Facundo Pellistri or Zidane Iqbal introduced, the important thing was securing all three points, especially after our first-half scare and Panagiotou’s well-taken strike, which kept us on our toes right until the end.
MARTINEZ RILES THE CROWD
United fans absolutely adore our Argentinian centre-back Lisandro Martinez but the home faithful clearly aren’t in agreement! They felt our no.6 could have given away a first-half penalty for handball and they were up in arms when he only received a yellow for squaring up to an Omonia player in the closing stages. It’s fair to say ‘the Butcher’ plays the game on the edge, but his emotional approach is something Reds are finding more endearing by the week.
ELSEWHERE IN GROUP E
Real Sociedad kept up their perfect start to this season’s Europa League campaign, as they dispatched Sheriff Tiraspol 2-0 in Moldova. David Silva gave La Real the lead at almost the exact same time as Rashford was equalising for United and Moussa Kyabou’s red card on the hour-mark gave the home side an uphill task which became even more strenuous when Brais Mendez made it two just minutes later. The Basque outfit now sit top of the group on nine points and will clinch qualification next week with a win or draw in the reverse fixture in Spain.