Manchester United’s struggling season took another blow when Marcus Rashford was sent off in a dramatic, qualification-damaging Champions League defeat to FC Copenhagen
United showed guile and grit for periods in a wild and wonderful contest in the Danish capital, twice looking to have claimed a crucial win before succumbing late to a goal from 17-year-old substitute Roony Bardghji.
Midway through the first half, they were cruising thanks to Rasmus Hojlund’s double against his hometown club – both close-range finishes from a striker who knew exactly where he needed to be and when.
However, the game was turned in the 42nd minute when referee Donatas Rumsas was summoned to the pitchside monitor to review a late tackle by Rashford on the ankle of Elias Jelert, and he responded by sending the forward straight red.
With 13 minutes remaining, the home side took advantage of an injury to United defender Jonny Evans and a medical emergency in the crowd, thanks to Mohamed Elyounoussi’s finish and Diogo Goncalves’ penalty – awarded for a handball by Harry Maguire.
United overcame their numerical disadvantage to keep the hosts at bay before retaking the lead through Bruno Fernandes’ penalty, which was awarded via VAR for a handball by Lukas Lerager.
But the home team would not be denied. Lerager equalized with a back-post effort before Bardghji hammered home after United failed to clear.
United are not yet out, despite finishing bottom of Group A and facing a trip to Galatasaray, where they have never won, before hosting the already-qualified Bayern Munich.
Manchester United appear determined to put themselves and their fans through emotional ordeals this season.
Most would be forgiven for thinking that their worst start to a season in six decades, culminating in back-to-back 3-0 home losses to Manchester City and Newcastle, was the apex.
That appeared to be the case when Hojlund gave them the 2-0 lead their intent and precision deserved. At the time, the Red Devils were aiming for a second consecutive victory, following Saturday’s snatched victory at Fulham, and a much-improved chance of making the last 16 of Europe’s elite club competition.
We had no idea what was in store for us.
Rashford sparked it when his clumsy misplaced foot found Jelert’s ankle and forced the officials to make a decision, which they did to United’s detriment. It precipitated an implosion at a time when this still-fragile team could least afford one.
United’s poise gave way to chaos, as Copenhagen drew level thanks to a raucous and re-energized Parken Stadium. United were shaky, and the half-time whistle came just in time.
The visitors were excellent for 25 minutes after manager Erik ten Hag restructured and refocused them. Their defensive toughness was complemented by hints of counter-attacking intent, which kept Copenhagen on guard even with the extra man. At the end of this, they won the penalty, which Fernandes converted to restore their lead.
When the dust settles, Ten Hag will likely look to this period and the one preceding it in the first half to demonstrate that his battered and bruised side is, indeed, progressing, albeit slowly.
Ultimately, with so little wiggle room following their early-season woes, results are critical for United now, and another one eluded them here.
In the circumstances, the instinct to retreat to their own box was understandable, but the defending when they arrived for Copenhagen’s equalizer and winning goal left a lot to be desired.
In contrast to United’s 1-0 victory at Old Trafford two weeks ago, the Danes were deliriously dancing after a late show of strength.
They are now second in the group, leaving United with it all to do to keep their Champions League hopes alive.