Manchester United see recent progress checked by limp Europa defeat

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Cristiano Ronaldo appeals for a penalty as Manchester United succumb to a Europa League defeat against Real Sociedad Credit: PA Images
Cristiano Ronaldo appeals for a penalty as Manchester United succumb to a Europa League defeat against Real Sociedad Credit: PA Images

Thursday nights in the Europa League can work both ways for whichever poor, unfortunate Big Sixers happen to find themselves in there.

At its best, the Europa offers a plausible route to silverware and a chance for fringe players to show their worth and more established players to find form and confidence.

At the other end of the scale is the more melancholy reality that can often take hold, with awkward, energy-sapping matches that can put a brake on momentum.

So it was for Manchester United on what was always going to be an awkward night even before the news that overshadowed it.

Real Sociedad at home was a sub-optimal opening game; genuinely dangerous opposition and the likeliest rival for top spot, yet a game where anything less than a win really won’t suffice.

Top spot really matters in this competition as well, carrying as it does a prize that is even more precious in this particular season: two fewer games in the knockout stages.

And after this annoying, irritating 1-0 defeat that top spot already looks a tall order for United. This was also a performance and result that will inevitably check some of the renewed confidence that has been flowing through Erik ten Hag’s side.

The nature of the goal will be particularly galling for United, a penalty that should surely have been overturned by VAR as David Silva’s shot deflected off Lisandro Martinez’s knee and into his arm. VAR has had a bad week and it got no better here.

Manchester United v Real Sociedad - Brais Mendez celebrates his goal Credit: PA Images
Manchester United v Real Sociedad - Brais Mendez celebrates his goal Credit: PA Images

But if the goal was controversial and fortunate, it was hard to argue that La Real’s overall performance didn’t merit something.

Equally, United certainly didn’t do enough to feel a great sense of injustice at not winning the game.

As ever when he is on the pitch, Cristiano Ronaldo was the focus. Like the Europa League itself, these days that can work both ways. Tonight he missed chances, scored an offside header, pleaded for absurd penalties and generally huffed and puffed – emphasis on the huff.

It will be little comfort to United that Sociedad are a good side. This was their third away win of the season already having beaten Cadiz and Elche in La Liga, and last weekend held Atletico Madrid to a 1-1 draw despite falling behind early.

David Silva retains much of his charm and not for the first time pulled plenty of strings in Manchester, while Takefusa Kubo caught the eye.

But really this just wasn’t good enough from United. A disjointed performance that had none of the cohesion and clarity that has marked their recent league efforts.

And while this was a team with some changes from the weekend, it was hardly second string or lacking in European experience.

For some reason, this European matchweek has seemed to particularly highlight the vast difference in pace and style between European and Premier League football, but this was a United side and manager that should have been more than ready for it. Yet it seemed to throw them entirely off course.

The likelihood now is that United will have a bit of time to stew on this. We know it’s obviously not the European competition they want to be in or feel they deserve to be in, and now there is the added niggle of seeing their momentum checked by it.

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