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Will Onana’s last-minute penalty save resuscitate Man United’s season?


Manchester United's goalkeeper Andre Onana (R) celebrates with Harry Maguire (C) after a penalty save during their clash with Copenhagen at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, October 24, 2023. /CFP

Manchester United’s goalkeeper Andre Onana (R) celebrates with Harry Maguire (C) after a penalty save during their clash with Copenhagen at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, October 24, 2023. /CFP

Manchester United’s goalkeeper Andre Onana (R) celebrates with Harry Maguire (C) after a penalty save during their clash with Copenhagen at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, October 24, 2023. /CFP

On the evening that Manchester United’s greatest star Bobby Charlton was rightly eulogized, Erik ten Hag’s side somehow seized a scarcely credible triumph over Danish champions Copenhagen which even the wildest of dreamers may not have dared to envision. 

As tributes poured out beforehand for the late Red Devils legend who famously likened the Old Trafford to a “Theatre of Dreams,” few could have predicted the drama that would transpire on the pitch. Harry Maguire’s strike and Andre Onana’s last-minute penalty save combined to see United cling narrowly to victory by the narrowest of margins in the Champions League. 

Many eyebrows were raised when Maguire’s name was spotted in the starting lineup once again, considering the ongoing whispers about his slow movement and tenability. Yet when United found themselves in desperate need of an injection of inspiration to rescue faltering ambitions, it was the much-maligned defender who rose to the occasion with a smart header. 

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag (second left) lays flowers in memory of Sir Bobby Charlton prior their clash with Copenhagen at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, October 24, 2023. /CFP

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag (second left) lays flowers in memory of Sir Bobby Charlton prior their clash with Copenhagen at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, October 24, 2023. /CFP

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag (second left) lays flowers in memory of Sir Bobby Charlton prior their clash with Copenhagen at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, October 24, 2023. /CFP

Yet further tension lay in store, as the four additional minutes had just elapsed when Scott McTominay endangered an opponent with a raised boot that conceded a penalty. Stunningly, Onana – who has faced intense scrutiny since his summer move from Inter Milan – redeemed himself by diving bravely to palm Jordan Larsson’s penalty wide. 

With that single swipe of a hand, the goalkeeper plucked his side from the depths of despair in a fashion so dramatic, even Charlton in his heyday could not have conceived a climactic twist so perfectly poignant.

It was the first spot-kick save by a United goalkeeper since David de Gea thwarted CSKA Moscow’s efforts in 2015. Onana’s intervention injected fresh impetus into his team’s European venture that had started with the setback of successive defeats. 

While logic dictated United should have all but sealed the game with a second goal, opportunity went begging as Alejandro Garnacho’s well-struck attempt was superbly parried by Kamil Grabara. McTominay could then only direct the rebound narrowly astray of the posts, passing up a chance to render any ultimate heroics moot. As fortune would have it, Onana’s match-defining moment was thereby set in stone.

Manchester United's goalkeeper Andre Onana saves a last second penalty from Jordan Larsson of FC Copenhagen during their clash at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, October 24, 2023. /CFP

Manchester United’s goalkeeper Andre Onana saves a last second penalty from Jordan Larsson of FC Copenhagen during their clash at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, October 24, 2023. /CFP

Manchester United’s goalkeeper Andre Onana saves a last second penalty from Jordan Larsson of FC Copenhagen during their clash at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, October 24, 2023. /CFP

By winning maximum points through such late drama, the victory infused the campaign with renewed belief and conviction during its hour of gravest jeopardy.  

“Onana showed personality,” Ten Hag said. “He knows that before he was not at the levels his skills are. He didn’t match his skills and he could do better and I think Saturday [against Sheffield United] was a very good performance and today as well. Don’t forget his save after half time on the counterattack.” 

While Onana’s save doubtlessly salvaged a welcome victory, United’s efforts fell well short of providing assurance. The opening 45 minutes, in particular, saw a paucity of ideas, lackluster execution and absence of vitality painfully removed from Charlton’s storied side of yore, prompting understandable displeasure from the United fans in attendance.  

Manchester United's goalkeeper Andre Onana (C) and Harry Maguire (L) acknowledge the home crowd after their clash with Copenhagen at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, October 24, 2023. /CFP

Manchester United’s goalkeeper Andre Onana (C) and Harry Maguire (L) acknowledge the home crowd after their clash with Copenhagen at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, October 24, 2023. /CFP

Manchester United’s goalkeeper Andre Onana (C) and Harry Maguire (L) acknowledge the home crowd after their clash with Copenhagen at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, October 24, 2023. /CFP

Ten Hag faces an arduous task to reinstate attacking fluidity and inject renewed impetus if progression beyond the group stage is to become reality. The coming weeks promise to reveal whether foundations can be steadily laid for this team to scale new heights in the image of eras past, or whether indeed greater turbulence may yet be weathered before United’s stature is restored on Europe’s premier stage. 

At least for now, through grit and fortune in equal measure on a night dedicated to their greatest son, Ten Hag’s charges truly honored Charlton’s memory in a fashion that nobody would have foreseen on this storied patch of earth in Manchester so fittingly termed a place of dreams. 



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