"Woahhh It’s Elanga!”
The noise from the away end of the Wanda Metropolitano was deafening as the teenage superstar scored an all-important equaliser off the bench, as Manchester United came away with a 1-1 draw against Atletico Madrid.
The visitors were second best all night, and only managed two shots on target, but the super Swede made one count, where his teammates had failed all night. Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Harry Maguire were all off the pace for the majority of the game and so it fell to their teenage sensation to rescue them in Europe.
All the pre-game talk was on Ronaldo facing off against the team that he has hurt the most, yet the whole United front line was ineffective. Diego Simeone picked his 33rd different starting XI in 35 games this season and as he so often does, set his side up to press and hurry with intensity.
Meanwhile Ralf Rangnick’s decision to play Victor Lindelof at right-back to provide defensive solidity was a strange one, as he was withdrawn on the hour and struggled to cope with the pace Atleti had.
The home side went in front thanks to an absolutely wonderful header from Joao Felix, who was superb throughout. Renan Lodi picked up the ball on the left after a corner was cleared and he whipped the ball into the front man who met the ball with aplomb and cannoned his header in off the post. If United needed a positive start to silence the raucous home fans, they instead gave them a goal that ignited the Wanda Metropolitano.
United tried to get back into the game but struggled to create any real chances, with two potshots from range the best they came up with in a lacklustre first half. They failed to register a single shot on target which left Cristiano Ronaldo visibly frustrated, while they also didn’t have one touch in the opposition area in the first half - the first time they've done so in the Champions League since at least the 2005/06 campaign when stats were recorded.
But it could have got so much worse. Just before the break, United were handed a lifeline after a quick free-kick led to a driven ball across goal, and Fernandes’ slight touch took it onto Sime Vrsjalko's head but he could only find the crossbar from two yards out. Simeone could not believe the miss, as United kept within touching distance at the break.
Rangnick had serious work to do in that dressing room but didn’t make any changes, as Stefan Savic got across to block a Fernandes attempt. The away side made a positive start to the second period as they penned the hosts in, but Joao Felix and Angel Correa dropped in to help their midfield and pick up loose balls, of which there were several.
Atleti showed they had the stomach for a defensive fight, as Jadon Sancho’s effort was blocked and then Rangnick made his move with a triple substitution. With both full-backs on yellow cards, they were withdrawn, as Matic came on to replace Paul Pogba.
Elanga’s introduction helped win United a free-kick in a perfect position on the edge of the box but Ronaldo ballooned it over the bar. However, it was the main man Elanga who came up big for United when they needed him. With ten minutes to go, he broke through onto a Fernandes pass, and slid the ball past Jan Oblak, who found himself completely out of position when it truly mattered.
He gives them something that no other forward player offered. Pace, direct running, and intensity. The level of performance between him and Marcus Rashford was night and day.
Rangnick’s men had been second best throughout, but with their first shot on target, Elanga made it count. Despite the goal, Atletico Madrid could and perhaps should have got back in front. From a corner, Antoine Griezmann found himself with space to shoot in the box, but he curled his effort onto the crossbar. The woodwork lived a charmed life for David de Gea on his return to his former club but United got a brilliant result, when they certainly weren’t at their best.