Marcus Rashford’s deflected stoppage-time shot gave Manchester United an edgy victory over Wolves and ensured Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side start 2021 second in the Premier League.
The encounter was the sides’ fourth meeting of 2020 and appeared destined to end in a third goalless draw. But United showed a spirit that is beginning to characterise Solskjær’s team, Rashford capping a memorable personal year by sealing the win after the indefatigable Bruno Fernandes played him in with a sublime pass.
Afterwards the delighted manager played down the idea of United being title challengers despite being only two points behind Liverpool.
“There’s no title race after 15 games – you can lose the chance of being in the race in the first 10 games of course,” Solskjær said. “Get to 30 games, maybe then we can start talking about it. But the belief is there – the players think we can win against anyone, anywhere. This result is massive for the attitude.”
Solskjær pointed to Fernandes’s arrival at the end of the last winter transfer window as the catalyst for United’s upturn. “We go back to Bruno’s debut – also against Wolves – we are a different outfit now, better mentally and physically. Belief has come through performances and results.
“Tonight there was a fantastic attitude, a desire to keep creating something, create that little bit of luck, we earned the goal by the desire to keep going. It is a good way of ending the year. There have been so many of these type of games against Wolves so to have that edge mentally is great.”
While Solskjær pointed to how his second-half replacements – Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw – helped turn the match, United started with bright interplay between Paul Pogba, Fernandes, Mason Greenwood and Alex Telles.
Wolves then had a turn taking the contest to their opponents. Adama Traoré, operating in attack alongside Pedro Neto, burned through midfield and turned a pass to the latter, who forced a save from David de Gea. Next Vitinha got the better of Pogba and again tested the keeper.
The Wolves pressure increased when a mix-up between De Gea and Eric Bailly allowed Traoré to pull the ball back from the left to Rúben Neves, whose fierce shot was beaten away with both fists.
Solskjær urged his team to get on the ball, and they responded for a while. The problem, though, was a lackadaisical air to attacks that had no potency. One aimless Greenwood pass from the right failed to find Edinson Cavani while a Rashford backheel went wide of Telles on the opposite flank.
Better from United was a Rashford dart to the byline that presaged Telles’s cross skimming off Cavani’s head with Rui Patrício’s goal gaping. That attack offered a flash of the pace missing from too much of United’s buildup play.
By the break Wolves had been reduced to the odd counterattack. Neto won a free-kick on one such foray and took it himself. De Gea’s quicksilver reflexes enabled him to push out Roman Saïss’s volley from the cross.
For the second half Shaw replaced Telles at left-back –“tactical”, said Solskjær. Had the manager also informed his players to sharpen their act, the sight of Pogba’s clumsy touch near halfway will have dismayed him. And if there was a noticeable increase in vocal intensity – both teams contributing with shouts of encouragement – the quality remained below par.
In the hope of improving Wolves’ quality, Nuno Espírito Santo brought on Daniel Podence for Vitinha but it remained United who did the majority of huffing and puffing. When Fernandes fails to spark United often suffer and so it was proving.
The Portuguese was having a rare match in which the flicks, spins, passes and runs were foundering and so Solskjær called for Martial. Greenwood was taken off for the Frenchman but because United had created a paucity of chances Rashford and Cavani might just as easily been the ones to make way.
Yet the game continued in a pattern of United domination and little else. Then there was a penalty claim denied by VAR. It came after a Cavani finish from a corner was ruled out for offside. Bailly’s header had hit Conor Coady’s hand before Cavani put the ball in the net but the video assistant referee decided it was not a clear error and the Wolves captain escaped.
Nuno said: “The game teaches you have to be focused until the end.”