Squali faliti Jose Mourinho called them, and they await Manchester United. A first goal for 18-year-old Alejandro Garnacho was enough to defeat Real Sociedad 1-0 but was not enough to progress as winners of the group, so Erik ten Hag’s team be thrown into a playoff against one of those “failed sharks” from the Champions League, Ajax, Barcelona, Juventus, Leverkusen, Salzburg, Sevilla, Shakhtar and Sporting CP opponents that will have to be overcome to continue in this competition.
That may not be too terrifying, but it wasn’t the way they wanted it. Two more games aren’t what they wanted either. Garnacho’s superb strike after quarter of an hour had briefly given them hope of avoiding that, but one goal was not enough. United needed two, and although they might have got it when Cristiano Ronaldo ran clean through in the first half only to pass up the night’s best chance, they never truly came close again. Real Sociedad deserved this.
The excitement of seeing Garnacho apart, plus a couple of moments from Bruno Fernandes, not much happened for a team that ended the match with Harry Maguire up front. The objective was clear; the route there, less so.
“We know what we have to do,” Ten Hag said. United had to score two goals; so, Imanol Alguacil said, did la Real. When he was reminded of the 4-0 against United in Turin on the eve of this match, the coach shot back “the last two games against them were 0-0 and 0-1, four points and only one goal conceded”, and his team came into this having conceded just once in this competition, but he took as a given that the visitors would score here. “We’re going to need to score at least two goals to win. They’re going to attack us for sure. Either we get into our heads that we need to score two or we won’t top the group.”
The opening suggested that they did indeed have that in their heads, Pablo Marin firing off the first shot after just thirty-five seconds and Carlos Fernández hitting the side-netting four minutes later. La Real wanted the ball and by half time had racked up three times as many attacks. And yet, that may have suited United, who were incisive when they had the chance to move, the space behind both full backs there for them to run into – which was how they got the first goal.
Fernandes beat Diego Rico to head on, Ronaldo collected and slotted a perfectly weighted pass left for Garnacho. He beat Andoni Gorosabel and struck a superb rising shot over Álex Remiro and into the net. It was his first for the club; the confidence of the finish said it won’t be the last. The confidence of the minutes that followed too. This was a lively display, and he was soon receiving a lovely pass from Fernandes to shoot over.
Real kept coming but there was a nervousness about them when United stepped out which was expressed best when Jon Pacheco swiped at the ball, with Ronaldo just behind him. Through all alone, the ball sat up, an invitation he never turn down. Ronaldo though lifted it over Remiro and over the bar, his lob ending on the roof of the net.
At the other end, the impressive Marin, 19 years old and making only his second start, scuffed one inside the area just when things were opening in front of him and got an even better chance only for David de Gea to somehow keep him out. The first save from De Gea was superb, one handed low to his right; the second, from barely a yard, saw him recover fast and throw himself before Marin’s follow-up, the ball hitting his shoulder.
Marin was withdrawn to applause just before the hour at the same time as Marcus Rashford was brought on, four simultaneous substitutions seeming to suggest a shift: la Real would resist, United would attack. Rashford’s first run immediately revealed the intended threat. Given a role behind the forwards where the departing Donny van de Beek had been to little real effect, there was not a huge amount else though.
Real continued to have a lot of the ball, and the territorial advantage too, if not much clarity around the area. When Luke Shaw slipped, a poor pass from Robert Navarro saw a three-on-one come to nothing. The game was getting fractious now, on edge and increasingly feeling like a case of next goal wins. Sociedad were closer to it, Alexander Sørloth twice threatening, De Gea making a simple enough save from Ander Guevara and Navarro progressing deep into the United area, his effort blocked. Crosses came and went for la Real, the shot total reaching 15-4, and substitutions were made.
Including, eventually Maguire – up front. That didn’t work either.