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Friday, April 19, 2024

Brentford strike late to deny Manchester United a win they never deserved

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An extraordinary game got a dramatic finish when substitute Mason Mount seemed to have stolen an unworthy win for Manchester United, before Kristoffer Ajer smashed a 98th-minute equaliser to ensure Brentford took away a point.

Hundreds of furious Brentford fans were streaming up the stairs and out into the night when Ivan Toney wriggled away from the sluggish substitutes Lisandro Martinez and Casemiro before jabbing the ball across the six-yard box for Ajer to fire home. It was their 31st shot, and finally Andre Onana was beaten. A 1-1 draw was the least Brentford deserved.

That warm fuzzy feeling that United felt at the end of their incredible FA Cup win over Liverpool two weeks ago dissipated in half an hour of domination by their hosts. By half-time Brentford had taken 15 shots, hit the post and the crossbar and United’s positivity was forgotten. By the end of 90 minutes, Brentford had taken 30 shots and it was astonishing that they hadn’t scored. They almost lost one of the most one-sided games you might ever see.

At the end of a week in which Erik ten Hag had had to bat away speculation about his future, this night did nothing to help his cause. This was not a strategy by United to soak up pressure, to coax Brentford into a place of false security before stealing the game. There were no rope-a-dope tactics here. This was an away team utterly overwhelmed, unable to cope and getting away with it through sheer luck, looking like relegation strugglers trying to survive.

Ten Hag’s problems went beyond Brentford’s relentless assault on his team. Raphael Varane and Victor Lindelof both had to be replaced after picking up injuries. Martinez came on for his first appearance in two months to replace the latter, a welcome sight for United fans and desperately needed given the dire circumstances. Brentford, meanwhile, finished the game buoyed by their performance and a late goal, but exasperated that they couldn’t earn a valuable win in their fight against the drop.

After a disjointed start, Brentford began to take the game to United, pinning them inside the box and holding them there. Set-pieces were the weapon of choice as the visitors fended off seven corners and a free-kick on the edge of the area in the first 30 minutes.

The best chances fell to Toney: first, a header from a corner which he glanced wide, then a one-on-one with Onana after being sent in behind by Yoane Wissa’s intelligent first-time pass. Toney shifted his body right and fired the ball to the left of Onana, but it bounced back off the inside of the post and United scrambled back to clear.

Ivan Toney slams the floor in frustration

(AFP via Getty Images)

The big centre-back Mathias Jorgensen hit the crossbar a few minutes later with a powerful header after one of Brentford’s cleverer short-corner routines as shots rained down on the United goal. Toney, the captain in Christian Norgaard’s absence, tried again as he dribbled at a petrified Lindelof and shot inside the box, but he missed the target when he might have expected to score.

United’s contribution to the first half was to defend desperately and do so little with 56 per cent of the possession that that particular statistic needed double-checking. When they got close to the Brentford box and a wall of defenders in red and white, the tempo slowed to a standstill as if they’d suddenly stumbled into a forest of fog. The highlight of United’s half to forget was Kobbie Mainoo passing the ball nonchalantly, and accurately, with his shoulder.

United began the second half with more speed and intent as Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Dalot took pot-shots, and they brought a brilliant save from Mark Flekken when Fernandes set up Hojlund in the penalty area. Hojlund shot hard at goal with his first touch and Flekken flung himself to his right to push the ball to safety. The stadium gasped and United’s players looked bewildered.

At the other end, Onana had to be just as sharp, diving low to his right to keep out Yehor Yarmoliuk’s low shot rolling towards the corner, and then leaping up to block Keane Lewis-Potter’s follow-up. Toney carefully watched a long pass before flashing a brilliantly controlled volley just over the bar.

Ten Hag didn’t take long to make a change, replacing Alejandro Garnacho with Antony, but the Brazilian failed to inspire like he had done against Liverpool and it was Brentford chasing a winner.

Bryan Mbeumo was given an ovation as he entered the fray in his first appearance since December and he was almost the hero, first crossing precisely for Toney to score only for VAR to rule offside, and then crashing a volley against the crossbar. The crowd behind the goal groaned.

Then they howled as Casemiro rolled in Mount on the left side of the box to strike across Flekken and into the far corner. Ajer responded, but Brentford should have taken away much more. Somehow United escaped with one point more than they deserved.

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