Juan Mata scored one goal and made another as Manchester United came from behind to beat VfL Wolfsburg 2-1 on Wednesday and kick their UEFA Champions League campaign into gear.
Beaten 2-1 at PSV Eindhoven in their opening game, Louis van Gaal’s side fell behind to a fourth-minute Daniel Caligiuri goal at Old Trafford, before Mata rode to the hosts’ rescue.
The Spain midfielder won and scored a 34th-minute penalty and then set up Chris Smalling with a stunning improvised flick eight minutes into the second half to give improving United a fourth consecutive victory.
“It was very difficult because they scored so early,” Van Gaal told BT Sport. “Then we did very well. We created a lot of chances, but we don’t finish it and it was a lucky penalty, I think. Then we score and after that it was suffering. We have to keep the ball better in the second half.”
United are back on top of the English Premier League for the first time in two years and their defeat of Wolfsburg, coupled with PSV’s 3-2 loss at CSKA Moscow, left them in a four-way tie for first place in Group B ahead of their trip to the Russian capital on Oct. 21.
Wolfsburg finished the game strongly, but could not prevent a fourth successive defeat in England, which left last season’s DFB Pokal winners and Bundesliga runners-up without a win in three matches.
“We lacked a bit of luck at the end, but I’m confident we can build on tonight’s strong performance,” Wolfsburg coach Dieter Hecking said.
Luke Shaw’s graphic double leg break at PSV has forced United into a defensive reshuffle that has seen Antonio Valencia come into the team at rightback and it was courtesy of the Ecuadorian’s sleepiness that Wolfsburg went ahead.
Darting in from the right flank, Caligiuri laid the ball off to Max Kruse before running into the penalty area for the return pass and with Valencia the only defender not to step up, the Wolfsburg winger had all the time he needed to place a shot past David de Gea.
Old Trafford was silenced, but before long Wolfsburg were struggling to get out of their own penalty area.
Mata saw a goalbound shot headed over the bar by Dante, Bastian Schweinsteiger curled over, and Anthony Martial shot wide with his left foot after explosively bursting between Dante and Ricardo Rodriguez.
The Frenchman electrified the crowd every time he got the ball and in the 26th minute he danced to the byline before picking out Wayne Rooney, only for the United captain to blaze the ball over.
Mata was also keeping Wolfsburg’s defenders on their toes and after he had picked out Memphis Depay for a header that failed to trouble Diego Benaglio, he provoked the penalty with a cross that struck Caligiuri’s outstretched arm.
The Spaniard took the kick himself — as Rooney, United’s regular penalty-taker, looked on — and tucked it into the bottom-left corner.
Mata then picked out Depay for a shot that Benaglio blocked with his legs and after Ashley Young had come on for Valencia at halftime, the former Chelsea man created the crucial second goal with an arresting piece of improvisation.
Schweinsteiger’s mishit shot from outside the area looked to be bouncing behind Mata, but United’s No. 8 jutted out his leg and back-heeled the ball into the area, where Smalling ghosted in to beat Benaglio.
Shortly after, De Gea had to save at his near post from Caligiuri, but with United standing firm, Hecking turned to his bench, sending on Nicklas Bendtner and Andre Schuerrle for the final 20 minutes.
It coincided with a loss of composure in the United midfield brought on by Van Gaal’s decision to send on Phil Jones for Schweinsteiger, but despite Wolfsburg pressing — Schuerrle drilling a shot across goal and Rodriguez whipping a free-kick narrowly wide — United held on.
In the other match in Group B, PSV were taken apart in the first half at the Arena Khimki.
Ahmed Musa opening the scoring, before Seydou Doumbia headed in a second and then scored a penalty.
Doumbia might have had a hat-trick, only to blaze another spot-kick over the bar, before PSV were given hope when Maxime Lestienne scored a second-half brace. However, CSKA held on as the visitors finished with 10 men after Santiago Arias was sent off.
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