In a pandemic Andre Onanahis penalty save, there were some small moments that will stay in the memory.
There was Manchester United the goalkeeper was immediately insulted by his teammates but then panicked and pushed them away, believing there was still a corner to be saved, only for Victor Lindelöf to inform him that the game was over.
It was seen when substitutes in the competition stormed the field and joined the others in suffocating Onan. It was Old Trafford, silent except for the sound of a lone piper before kick-off, now a loud, jubilant bustle at the final whistle. And then it was saved itself.
After the penalty was awarded, Onana’s opponent Kamil Grabara stood in United’s half. He was aware that it would be all but the last kick and asked all his teammates in Copenhagen to crowd the edge and get as close to the rebound as possible.
Yet Onana made any rebound impossible, beating Jacob Larsson’s admittedly delicate effort away to the left with enough power to bounce to the ground and over the dead end.
“Thank you,” he said when Peter Schmeichel praised him for the save in a post-match interview with CBS Sports. “That’s why I’m here. They brought me here for this moment.”
If United fail to get out of Group A then, after his mistakes in the early defeats against Bayern Munich and Galatasaray, much of the blame will still lie at the goalkeeper’s door.
But now, if Erik ten Hag’s side can build on those three points and salvage a place in the last 16, Onan’s penalty will be remembered as the turning point – not just United. The Champions League campaign, but potentially on an Old Trafford career.
Those close to Onana feel like it was a moment he’s been deserving of for the past few months. The scrutiny that comes with being United’s number 1 has usually been intense. It is undeniable that he had a challenging start to life in Manchester.
However, Onana has decided to play her way through it. After each mistake, he has been as determined in his proactive style of play as before. “He showed character,” Ten Hag said after the game.
Ten Hag and his staff will be hoping that a dramatic late possession has not only started Onana’s redemption arc, it has also sustained something else.
Whether Harry Maguire can rebuild his United career depends on his success in preventing rather than scoring goals, but it won’t hurt to have walked away with the winner.
Maguire continues to capitalize on the opportunity United have given him due to defensive injuries. Ten Hag hailed the man he stripped of the captain’s armband for “dominating at the right moments” against Copenhagen.
“He’s playing a lot more proactively on the ball – stepping in, passing vertically, defending on the front foot as well, stepping in, defending, very confident in the one-on-ones,” he said.
Maguire and Onana were the last to leave the pitch after being held back from the pitch during full-time interviews and walked past a packed Stretford End as they headed down the tunnel, still receiving as loud a ovation as anyone has heard after a game this season. .
It would all be such a good story if it hadn’t bordered on United’s worst display of the campaign so far in the opening 72 minutes.
Onana and Maguire’s heroics shouldn’t hide how desperate it was at times, especially in the first half. Ten Hag had nothing good to say about the opening 45 minutes which ended with his players being booed back into the dressing room.
United improved at the start of the second half, though not enough to avoid conceding the chances they have conceded far too regularly this season.
Before his penalty was taken, there was an equally impressive stop to deny Lukas Lerager — Opponent of the Week, who drove unrestrained through a non-existent center to get on the end of a great chance on the wing.
It was a reminder that even if United win again, this is still a team that breaks down in familiar, predictable ways. The coherence and consistency of approach that Ten Hag gradually found last season seems lost, or at best temporarily misplaced.
The accusation against Ole Gunnar Solskjær was often that his team was relying on individual moments. The same accusation could be leveled at his successor due to their three consecutive victories.
First was Scott McTominaythe winner of the game from the bench against Brentford. Then Diogo Dalota shot from distance to the edge past a team that may struggle to get off their feet Premier League table, don’t bother to survive.
Now not one but two more seismic moments – Maguire’s goal, Onana’s save – made a positive result from a frantic performance.
Then again, maybe that’s as much as United can expect at the moment. Given how miserable the start of the season has been, victories are welcome in any form they come.
And if players under intense scrutiny pull off unexpected moments of brilliance in the process, lifting not just morale but the entire team, so much the better. That certainly seemed to be the case during Onana’s post-match slam.
“You can see it’s a very good spirit in the locker room, they’re together, they fight together and they celebrate together,” Ten Hag said of those celebrations. “If we suffer setbacks, they support each other. You always need that spirit to be a successful team.”
United cannot rely on such unique moments forever. But now they are a team that needs them.
(Photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)
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