Teenager Anthony Elanga came to Manchester United’s rescue as his 80th-minute strike secured a 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie at the Wanda Metropolitano.
United were seeking to emulate the three other English sides left in the Champions League by securing a first-leg lead in the first knockout round, and Ralf Rangnick said on the eve of the trip to Madrid that he was prioritising this competition.
But his side fell behind within seven minutes of kick-off in Spain. Having cleared the initial corner, Atleti left-back Renan Lodi swung in a cross from the left that Joao Felix raced past Harry Maguire to greet with a stunning header that went in off the near post.
The visitors bossed possession but did not look at all comfortable during an insipid first half. Cristiano Ronaldo, whistled throughout, became increasingly irate by Atletico’s approach and the hosts went close to a second just before half-time as Sime Vrsaljko hit the crossbar.
United had produced a listless display before substitute Elanga latched onto Bruno Fernandes’ pass to reverse his shot across Jan Oblak into the bottom corner.
“I think that was my first touch as well,” Elanga told BT Sport. “I’ve dreamt of moments like this, scoring in the Champions League against a top opponent such as Atletico, it’s a dream come true. It’s only half-time in the tie.
“I told you how calm and cool I am whenever I get an opportunity for the club. I leave nothing in the tank when I step out onto the pitch and I just enjoy it.”
This last-16 first leg pitted together two sides enduring challenging seasons, with Diego Simeone’s La Liga champions stuttering during a poor title defence.
Atletico have produced the kind of Jekyll and Hyde displays that those watching United have become accustomed to, although Rangnick’s side had made it back-to-back wins with Sunday’s thrilling 4-2 triumph at Leeds.
The hosts looked bright from the first whistle and their opener duly arrived after just seven minutes. Rangnick’s decision to play Victor Lindelof at right-back was looking all the more curious when he failed to stop Renan Lodi’s cross as Felix ghosted in between Maguire and Raphael Varane to launch himself at the ball.
David de Gea was rooted to the spot as the world’s fourth most expensive player – signed for €126m from Benfica – saw his header crash into the net via the post.
Another hostile atmosphere welcomed United on Wednesday – especially goalkeeper De Gea – an Atletico academy graduate who left in 2011 and nearly joined rivals Real Madrid four years later – and Ronaldo.
No player has appeared more in the Champions League than the 37-year-old, who has five winners’ medals to his name and been the scourge of Atletico time and time again down the years. But here his every touch was greeted with jeers and it was a fruitless first-half.
Vrsaljko was unfortunate not to double Atletico’s lead on the stroke of half-time as his header deflected onto the bar off Lindelof, but something had to change at the break for United.
In an interview with TNT Sports Brazil, midfielder Fred recently described the club’s decision to have an interim manager in charge until the end of the season as “strange”, questioning whether there was a “long-term plan” in place.
Here, the plan was plain wrong. United hadn’t had a single touch in the Atletico box. There were plenty of issues for Rangnick to address having seen his side give away possession on 50 occasions. And yet, there were no changes at the restart.
On the failed experiment of using Lindelof at right-back, Rangnick would say afterwards: “To start with, we could do with him in aerial duels, set-pieces, free-kicks for and against us. All three centre-halves were in good shape, but after seven minutes we were 1-0 down the plan was in the dustbin.
“I knew this was not his best position, when we had Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the ball and Alex Telles, we had more possession and more assistance from the wings. In the end, due to the early goal it was difficult.
“In the second half we showed in quite a few moments how we have to play. It will be different at home in front of 75,000 fans and more conviction than we did in the first half.”
“I don’t know if I rescued it but after the performance in the first half it could only get better. In the first half, I still can’t believe what we did. We played without conviction and the necessary aggression. In the second half we did better. If we’d had another 10 minutes we may well have won the game.
“Against the ball and with the ball we were far too apprehensive. It’s difficult to prevent the early goal – it was a brilliant cross and sprint to the front post – but we have to be more aggressive.”
Atletico Madrid: Oblak (6), Savic (7), Gimenez (7), Mandava (7), Vrsaljko (7), Llorente (6), Kondogbia (8), Herrera (8), Renan Lodi (7), Correa (7), Joao Felix (8).
Subs: Griezmann (n/a), Lemar (n/a).
Man Utd: De Gea (6), Lindelof (5), Varane (5), Maguire (6), Shaw (5), Fred (6), Pogba (5), Rashford (4), Bruno Fernandes (5), Sancho (5), Ronaldo (5).
Subs: Alex Telles (6), Wan-Bissaka (6), Matic (6), Elanga (7), Lingard (n/a).
Man of the match: Joao Felix.