Manchester United came close to rueing their failure to claim three points before Scott McTominay scored a stoppage-time winner to give them hope of winning Group E and avoiding a knockout tie against a Champions League-eliminated opponent.
That might be one of Barcelona, Milan, Juventus and Atlético Madrid, none of whom Erik ten Hag’s fledgling team would relish facing. Tonight they had lacked ruthlessness until McTominay’s close-range finish ensured United’s evening ended well.
Ten Hag’s men have Sheriff and Real Sociedad left to play but the Spanish side are three points better off on 12 so remain favourites to top the group.
Cristiano Ronaldo was United’s central striker due to Anthony Martial’s injury, as Ten Hag’s side’s attempted to take a significant step towards qualification against an opponent yet to gather a point before this match.
Omonia Nicosia’s fans, in loud voice before kick-off, saw their side defend two early corners – the first of which featured Marcus Rashford’s shot warming Francis Uzoho’s fingers. There followed a passage of pass-and-move as crisp as this October night, United exerting the control their manager seeks. Rashford, bright throughout the first half, swept a crossfield ball to the right, then later released Ronaldo whose strike hit the side-netting.
Ronaldo’s next offering was to take Tyrell Malacia’s driven pass with aplomb, swivel on to his left, and shoot. This earned another corner and Rashford intervened again, swapping passes with Bruno Fernandes ahead of the captain steering wide from an angle on the left.
Fernandes loves to fizz about and be involved and when the Omonia forward Bruno hit a free-kick into United’s area there he was to clear. From an Omonia corner, Fernandes broke and overcooked a ball aimed for Ronaldo’s charge into the area.
The best hope for Neil Lennon’s side was a quick break. When Andronikos Kakoulli sprinted down the right, Lisandro Martínez had to block. Omonia’s manager was noticeably chagrined, perhaps at his team’s lack of urgency, allowing United to hog the ball on their own terms. One phase ended with Fernandes simply tapping left to Rashford and he was in and shooting – but only at an advancing Uzoho. Rashford came close again when dancing into Omonia’s area, leaving a turquoise-shirted defender on his backside, though his effort was stymied once more.
The 24-year-old’s act dazzled: now he swerved infield and hit a curving attempt that required Uzoho to leap left and save. United’s 77.6% possession at the half-hour mark was indicative of their dominance. Needed was a goal – or two – to make this count. Ronaldo took a turn to try, a classy pirouette followed by a cute dink –which was the polar opposite to how Casemiro, from 20 yards, crashed the ball against Uzoho’s bar.
When Malacia and Rashford crafted a passing triangle inside Omonia’s area and the left-back drilled the ball into Ronaldo, the forward may have missed – but the move was reminiscent of how Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City breach many sides: encouraging for Ten Hag who wishes to construct a possession-based unit.
However the half ended with warnings for United: Bruno skated in behind and had Kakoulli free and begging to be set-up but he blazed over. Then Diogo Dalot mis-hit a pass that allowed Kakoulli in and as David de Gea charged out, Martínez barged the Omonia striker aside. It appeared a foul – maybe even a red card as the defender was the last man – but the referee, Jérôme Brisard, was not interested and neither, oddly, was the VAR.
Antony and Rashford continued United’s frustration after the interval. At least the Brazilian forced Uzoho into a sharp save. Rashford’s follow-up was tame with what was an easy opening. Further carelessness ensued when Malacia latched on to a Fernandes pass and the left-back could not beat the impressive Uzoho. Neither could Ronaldo when the ball appeared before him.
Last week Ten Hag praised United’s calmness when going behind in Cyprus. The same quality had to be shown in this return fixture and, surely, the breakthrough would come. But two Fernandes corners, an Antony cross that missed Ronaldo, and Rashford steering wide when clean through all lacked composure. So off came Antony and Malacia for Jadon Sancho and Luke Shaw.
A combination from the new arrivals that sought to put Fernandes in augured well yet the clock ticked down. Rashford, for seemingly the umpteenth time, spurned an opportunity before Casemiro escaped serious injury after a two-footed Moreto Cassamá lunge.
To win, Ten Hag now introduced Christian Eriksen’s savvy. He probed and unloaded a couple to no avail. But McTominay, on later, ended the hero to send United fans home happy.