Casemiro is making almost no case for a starting place in a Manchester United midfield that remains a conspicuous point of weakness.
Is there such a thing as a confidence-shedding victory?
Maybe not, but Manchester United came pretty close with a narrow disaster-averting 3-2 victory over Omonia Nicosia that keeps them on track for at least the Europa League play-offs but raised more questions than it answered.
United trailed the seventh best team in Cyprus at half-time after a defensive disaster and, even though they turned things round after the break through substitutes Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, there was still time for more woeful defending to allow the Cypriots to score again.
The most visible focus of United’s struggles was Ronaldo, in pursuit of his 700th career goal but somehow never looking like getting it despite chance after chance coming his increasingly angry way. By the time he tried and failed to curl one inside the far post in injury time after a delicious Cruyff turn he was reduced to howling into the skies at the sheer unfairness of it all.
He hit the post from close range when he looked certain to score, pirouetted down a penalty area blind alley after being played through and failed to get on the end of an unselfish Rashford square pass with the goal at his mercy. And that was just in the final 10 minutes of the game.
In all, Ronaldo had eight attempts on goal yet hit the target with just one. His assist for what turned out to be a surprisingly important third United goal (and second for the significantly impressive Rashford) didn’t seem to do much to soothe his frustrations.
But while Ronaldo’s misery despite United’s victory was funny, it was behind him that more pressing, less personal landmark-based, issues were arising.
It’s hardly a secret that United’s midfield has been a point of weakness in recent times, and on Sunday they face Everton in the Premier League. The Toffees have been impressively resilient in recent weeks – something United demonstrably were not last weekend (slightly understandable) or tonight (less understandable) – and their midfield has been one of the unexpected high points of the Premier League season.
There has been and will be much clamour for Casemiro to get his Premier League chance, but the simple fact is he has done nothing in these Europa League appearances to force his way into the first-choice side. If he gets his first league start in a United shirt it’ll say more about others than it does about him.
The first goal for Omonia was a disasterclass all round for United, with Jadon Sancho playing Tyrell Malacia into trouble and Malacia promptly turning that trouble into a full-blown crisis. But while Christian Eriksen was busting a gut to get back and try to put out the fire – to the extent that he ends up actually being the man playing goalscorer Karim Ansarifard onside – Casemiro was AWOL. He was not the chief villain, but his absence from the scene was noted. And it was not his first mistake of the evening, while a pass-completion percentage of barely 80 per cent in this kind of game is not something that indicates someone ready for a Premier League midfield.
There were, however, some positives for United beyond the bare minimum of the result. Chiefly, there was further welcome evidence of the Marcus Rashford Renaissance. He sorted United right out after coming on at half-time.
His first goal in particular wasa sweet and precise curled finish from just outside the area, one borne of confidence and a sense of peace that few of his team-mates appear to currently share. The space opened up for him after a textbook and entirely unselfish “uses him by not using him” run from Ronaldo. The irony that this greatest of footballers who is always, for good or ill, front and centre of everything didn’t actually touch the ball for his most significant contribution of the night was enjoyable.
Martial’s impact off the bench was even swifter to put United in front, and Ten Hag can at least feel reasonably confident that Martial, Antony and Rashford is his best front three right now. Ronaldo and Sancho had poor games here, while Antony’s first-half performance was a standout amid the shod.
But the big questions – and big decisions – all lie further back. Ten Hag has some big decisions to make, but at least he’s got a bit longer to make them with United’s game on Sunday not kicking off until 7pm.
Those extra couple of hours might seem like the most minor positive imaginable, but that was very much the theme of United’s evening in Cyprus.