Marcus Rashford’s deflected stoppage-time strike secured Manchester United a hard-fought victory against Wolves and ensured Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men start 2021 second in the Premier League.
The encounter was the fourth meeting of these sides in 2020 and looked set to end with them sharing a third goalless draw as the hectic festive schedule took its toll. But United dug deep and eked out a late winner at an empty Old Trafford, with Rashford capping a year to remember – on and off the field – by sealing a 1-0 triumph at the death.
In a sign of Solskjær’s confidence in his squad there were six changes from the Boxing Day draw at Leicester – the most eye-catching being the preference of Edinson Cavani at No 9 over Anthony Martial.
For Wolves, coming off a draw with Tottenham, there were four changes by Nuno Espírito Santo including Ki‑Jana Hoever, the 18-year-old defender handed a full Premier League debut.
United’s hopes of extending their unbeaten run via victory appeared bright judging by slick interplay from kick‑off. Here Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood and Alex Telles all passed and moved with intent close to Rui Patricio’s goal. Rashford then embarked on two runs that took him into a shooting position but neither of the subsequent attempts troubled Patricio.
Wolves then had a turn taking the contest to United. Adama Traoré, operating in attack alongside Pedro Neto, burned through the home team’s midfield and turned a pass to the latter, who unloaded and David de Gea saved. Next Vitinha got the better of Pogba and again tested the No 1, this effort as easy as the previous to address.
Yet these were sure signs of a Wolves pressure that was heightened when a mix-up between De Gea and Eric Bailly allowed Traore to pull the ball back from the left to Ruben Neves: this time the shot was fierce and United’s No 1 beat it away with both fists.
This all concerned Solskjær enough for him to make a rare foray to the technical area where he lingered, urging his team to get on the ball and stay there. It worked, for a while. The issue, though, was a lackadaisical air to attacks that were tippy-tappy heavy and not much else. An illustration was found in an aimless Greenwood pass from the right that failed to find Cavani and a Rashford backheel that went wide of Alex Telles on the opposite flank.
Better from United was a Rashford dart to the byline which presaged Telles’s cross skimming off Cavani’s head with Patricio’s goal gaping. Here was a flash of the pace missing from much of the home team’s buildup. This meant Wolves were able to move behind the ball easily and stymie their opponent and so it was instructive that when Patricio saved off his line from a Fernandes effort this derived from a pacy Greenwood ball in.
By the break Wolves had been reduced to the odd counter-attack as when Neto won a free-kick he took himself. Now De Gea earned his money, with quicksilver reflexes to push out Saiss’s attempt.
After a Fernandes ball over the top to Rashford yielded nothing, Neto wasted a golden opportunity to play in Traoré: each moment summed up the half.
For the second half Luke Shaw replaced Telles as United’s left-back and his opening action was to stand over a dead ball that Fernandes hit in from the left, Wolves clearing this in relaxed fashion.
Had Solskjær informed his men at the interval to sharpen their act, the sight of Pogba’s clumsy touch near halfway will have dismayed. And if there was a noticeable increase in vocal intensity – both teams contributing here with shouts of encouragement – the quality still remained below par. In the hope of improving Wolves’ calibre, Espirito Santo brought on Daniel Podence for Vitinha but it remained United who were doing the majority of huffing and puffing.
When Fernandes fails to spark United often suffer and so it was proving. The Portuguese was having a rare night in which the flicks, spins, passes and runs were foundering and so Solskjær called for Martial. Greenwood was taken off for the Frenchman but as United had created a paucity of chances Rashford and Cavani might have also been hooked. The game continued in a pattern of United’s domination and little else.
Now came the penalty claim denied by VAR. It came after a Cavani finish from a corner was chalked away for offside – before this Bailly’s header hit Coady’s hand but he escaped.
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