May 24, 2024

MANCHESTER, England — On a night when Manchester United honoured one of their heroes, they found two unlikely ones in Harry Maguire and André Onana.

The build-up to Tuesday’s Champions League clash with FC Copenhagen was dominated by tributes to Man United legend Sir Bobby Charlton, who died aged 86 on Saturday — but the aftermath was all about Maguire’s goal and Onana’s stoppage-time penalty save as Man United narrowly beat the Danish champions, 1-0.

It was a surprise Maguire was even on the field given the doubts he has faced of late around his place within the team, but when United needed a moment of inspiration to save a faltering European campaign, he delivered it with a second-half header.

But the drama wasn’t over. When Scott McTominay conceded a penalty after the allotted four minutes of injury time, Onana — heavily criticised since his summer move from Inter Milan — came up with the biggest save of his short United career to deny Jordan Larsson‘s spot kick. It was Charlton who first branded Old Trafford “The Theatre of Dreams” and on this of all nights, it was fitting.

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“It is incredible and a great night,” said manager Erik ten Hag. “Especially in the dying second when you concede a penalty, but a brilliant save from Andre Onana. Harry Maguire played a good game and Andre Onana as well. A poor first-half, but we stayed calm and in the second-half we stepped up and made more chances than them. I think in the end the result is justified but it was a narrow escape in the end.”

Maguire’s first goal since February 2022, it was a moment to savour for the former United captain, who has endured a torrid time since Ten Hag arrived as manager. Dropped to the bench in favour of Lisandro Martínez and Raphaël Varane for much of last season, Maguire was stripped of the captaincy ahead of the current campaign, and spent the opening months of the season in a familiar seat on the bench.

Injuries have given Maguire the opportunity to get back in the team and, after doing well in the 2-1 win over former club Sheffield United on Saturday, he kept his place against FC Copenhagen ahead of Jonny Evans and Victor Lindelöf.

His night didn’t get off to the best start, losing a 50-50 challenge to Mohamed Elyounoussi on the halfway line in the opening five minutes, which led to Diogo Gonçalves hitting the post, but it ended with the England defender being applauded off as he walked down the tunnel.

Maguire hasn’t had many reasons to smile over the last year, but this was certainly one and he will hope he’s earned enough trust from Ten Hag to start Sunday’s derby against Manchester City — something that was unimaginable just a few weeks ago.

Onana, meanwhile, has had his place in the team questioned after a series of mistakes since his £43.8m transfer from Inter, but there’s no doubt now that he will start against City.

On Tuesday against Copenhagen, there were again times when Onana’s attempts to play out from the back ended up in the stands. But he made an athletic save to deny Lukas Lerager early in the second half and then, with the game on the line, produced a moment of magic to deflect Larsson’s penalty wide with a strong right hand as he dived to his left.

The penalty save came so late in the game that the ball had barely stopped bouncing away from goal when Italian referee Marco Guida blew the final whistle. It was the first penalty kick save by a Man United goalkeeper since 2015, when David de Gea made a save against CSKA Moscow.

Onana blamed himself for United’s defeat to Bayern Munich to open the Champions League after his horrible error allowed Leroy Sané to score a soft opening goal. Onana was also at fault in the incident that saw United midfielder Casemiro sent off in the 3-2 loss to Galatasaray. But United are finally up and running in Group A and they have their new Cameroon goalkeeper to thank.

“He showed personality,” Ten Hag said of Onana. “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.”

It was one of those occasions that the United fans inside Old Trafford will remember forever — but when the jubilation subsides, there will be questions about why United needed a goal from a centre-back and a dramatic penalty save to beat FC Copenhagen. The first half, in particular, was poor and it was only when Christian Eriksen came onto the midfielder at half-time that the home side began to enjoy some form of control.

FC Copenhagen were thrashed 5-0 by Manchester City in the group stage a year ago but nothing is coming easy for Ten Hag’s team and each of Man United’s three consecutive wins have, at different stages, been fraught with jeopardy.

McTominay was the hero against Brentford with two stoppage time goals and Diogo Dalot took up the role at Bramall Lane on Saturday with a stunning 25-yard strike.

This time it was the turn of Maguire and Onana and Ten Hag can only hope there is someone else ready to take centre stage at the Theatre of Dreams against Manchester City on Sunday.

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