Manchester United’s faltering season suffered another significant blow as Marcus Rashford’s red card contributed to a dramatic, qualification-damaging Champions League defeat by FC Copenhagen.
In a wild and wonderful contest in the Danish capital, United showed guile and grit for periods and twice looked to have claimed a crucial win before succumbing late on to a goal from 17-year-old substitute Roony Bardghji.
They were cruising midway through the first half thanks to Rasmus Hojlund’s double against his hometown club – both close-range finishes from a striker who knew exactly where he needed to be and when.
But the game turned in the 42nd minute when referee Donatas Rumsas was called to the pitchside monitor to review a late tackle by Rashford on the ankle of Elias Jelert, and responded by showing the forward a straight red card.
With 13 minutes added, largely as a result of an injury to United defender Jonny Evans and a medical emergency in the crowd, the home side took advantage through Mohamed Elyounoussi’s finish and Diogo Goncalves’ penalty – awarded for a handball by Harry Maguire.
United defied their numerical disadvantage to hold the home side at bay, before again claiming the lead through Bruno Fernandes’ penalty – awarded via VAR for a handball by Lukas Lerager.
But the home side were not to be denied. Lerager made amends and drew them level with a back-post effort, before Bardghji hammered home after United failed to clear.
While United are down, they are not yet out, although they do sit bottom of Group A and face a trip to Galatasaray – where they have never won – before hosting the already-qualified Bayern Munich.
Raucous Parken Stadium roars on comeback win
Manchester United seem determined to put themselves and their supporters through an emotional wringer this season.
You would forgive most for believing their worst start to a campaign in six decades, culminating with back-to-back 3-0 home losses to Manchester City and Newcastle, would be the nadir.
That seemed to be the case when Hojlund gave them the 2-0 lead their purposeful and precise display merited. At that stage, the Red Devils were eyeing a second successive win, following Saturday’s snatched victory at Fulham, and a much-strengthened shot at making the last 16 of Europe’s elite club competition.
Little did we know of the drama to come.
Rashford sparked it when his misplanted foot – clumsy at best – found the ankle of Jelert and gave the officials a decision to make, which they did to United’s detriment. It sparked an implosion when this still-fragile team could least afford one.
United’s composure gave way to chaos, with Copenhagen drawing strength from a raucous and re-energised Parken Stadium to draw level. United were wobbling, the whistle for half-time timely.
Restructured and refocused by manager Erik ten Hag, the visitors were excellent for 25 minutes. Their resilience at the back was complemented by hints of counter-attacking intent that kept Copenhagen cautious, even with the extra man. It was at the end of this that they won the penalty, from which Fernandes restored their lead.
When the dust settles, it will be this period and the matching one in the first half Ten Hag will likely draw on to show his battered and bruised side are indeed making progress, albeit slowly.
Ultimately though, with such little wiggle room following their early-season travails, results are key for United now, and again one eluded them here.
The instinct to retreat to their box was understandable in the circumstances, but the defending when they got there for Copenhagen’s leveller and winning goal left a lot to be desired.
In contrast to United’s 1-0 win at Old Trafford two weeks ago, it was the Danes dancing deliriously after a late show of strength.
They are now second in the group, leaving United with it all to do to keep their Champions League hopes alive.