Manchester United stung by Real Sociedad loss after controversial penalty

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Manchester United’s Europa League campaign began with defeat to Real Sociedad on a subdued night at Old Trafford. The death of Queen Elizabeth II was confirmed only an hour-and-a-half before kick-off but the game went ahead following consultations with the governing bodies. Brais Mendez’s second-half penalty, controversially awarded against Lisandro Martinez for handball, ended Erik ten Hag’s restorative winning streak at four games and left United with work to do in Group E.

The news of the Queen’s death broke with fans already sat in their seats. Postponement at such short notice was unlikely. Instead, as a mark of respect, both sets of players wore black armbands, the pitch side advertising boards were blanked out and flags flew at half-mast, if they flew at all. A minute’s silence was also held before kick-off and impeccably observed by all four corners of Old Trafford, with the travelling la Real supporters respectfully holding their scarves aloft as one.

On the pitch, Ten Hag recalled several senior players who have watched United’s early season resurgence from the sidelines. Cristiano Ronaldo started for the first time since the 4-0 hammering at Brentford, as did captain Harry Maguire, while Casemiro made his full debut at the base of midfield as he continues to get up to speed with his new manager’s style of play. Perhaps most interesting of all was a run-out in the No 10 role for Fred, his usual hard running and intense pressing deployed further up the pitch.

The sombre circumstances of the evening did not especially quieten the crowd or dull the atmosphere but perhaps contributed to a flat, uneventful first half. Perhaps unsurprisingly, United’s best moments ended with Ronaldo, but the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s decision-making left something to be desired and demonstrated why he is currently fulfilling the role of second-choice striker under Ten Hag. An early dart in behind la Real’s defence resulted in a poor touch, loss of possession and the offside flag being raised.

Ronaldo was flagged again by the same assistant referee when heading a Diogo Dalot cross onto the underside of the crossbar, off goalkeeper Alejandro Remiro’s right glove and in after 35 minutes. His timings were off once more at the start of the second half, when arriving too late to meet a cross from substitute Bruno Fernandes. All this only seemed to make Ronaldo more and more desperate to score the goal that would prove to Ten Hag that he deserves to be starting regularly but it would not come. Instead, la Real took the lead.

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The decision to penalise Martinez for the penalty seemed at best harsh, at worst nonsensical. David Silva’s shot had hit his thigh and bounced up onto his arm while he was in the process of sliding in to block. It was not an unnatural position for his arms to be in. It was hard to imagine his arms being anywhere else. Ten Hag remonstrated with the fourth official but Massimiliano Irrati, the VAR, did not intervene and referee Marco di Bello’s decision stood. De Gea guessed correctly, diving to his left, but could not stop Mendez from finding the corner.

If it was a cruel penalty to concede, it was not exactly a goal out of nothing. La Real had threatened in the minutes leading up to their breakthrough, with winger Takefusa Kubo causing issues down United’s right and Martinez being tested in direct combat with all 6ft5in of former Crystal Palace target man Alexander Sorloth. The onus was now on United, and Ten Hag sought fresh impetus from the bench by introducing Jadon Sancho and youngster Alejandro Garnacho, but their impact was limited. Remiro was only truly made to work by a long-range effort from Casemiro, which was parried away easily.

That was United’s only shot on target of an underwhelming second half performance. Presumably, Ten Hag will not be too troubled by the defeat or the display behind it, not least because of the unique circumstances – in line with other English clubs in European competition, the United manager did not hold a post-match press conference – but after the optimism of recent weeks, it served as a reminder of the work still to do.

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