A second defeat at Wolves in 17 days has left Manchester United looking a far less daunting opponent right now. Out of the FA Cup and now relying on results elsewhere if they are to play in the Champions League next season, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer faces the most testing period of his embryonic spell in charge.
Next up? Barcelona!
After a flying start at Molineux on Tuesday, United played within themselves for far too long and when Ashley Young was sent off early in the second half their eventual 2-1 loss became something of an inevitability.
Watching this, Ernesto Valverde and his coaching staff will be licking their lips at the thought of heading to Old Trafford for their Champions League quarter-final first leg next Wednesday. If Diogo Jota and Raul Jimenez can pull United apart twice in barely a fortnight, imagine what Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez might be capable of.
United had started like a house on fire, playing at high energy and asking all sorts of questions of Wolves. The home side seemed to have been startled by United starting with a back three, with the change of shape allowing the Red Devils to be more assertive in the midfield battle which they had lost so easily when going down so meekly in the FA Cup at Molineux last month.
It came as no surprise when they took the lead in the 13th minute, even if the source was an unusual one. Fred squared the ball for Scott McTominay 25 yards from goal and the Scotland international unleashed a skimming effort along a damp surface and beyond the despairing dive of Rui Patricio.
Both midfielders had been brought in as part of Solskjaer’s overhaul after the unconvincing 2-1 win over Watford at the weekend. Marcus Rashford was ill and Ander Herrera injured but there were four more changes as the Norwegian looked for a more dynamic performance.
They only delivered one for 25 minutes, and once Fred had lost possession too easily in the build-up to Diogo Jota slotting home an equaliser United retreated into their shell.
Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard had already spurned two headed chances early on but in truth United never really made too many openings once Wolves had hauled themselves level. Suddenly they were losing the midfield tussle with ease and there seemed nobody willing to step up and accept the challenge.
Paul Pogba was again underwhelming having seen his standards slip somewhat over the past month, while Lukaku’s touch let him down on the rare occasions United did look to get into attacking positions.
Young’s dismissal for two late challenges in the space of five minutes actually sparked a period of possession for Solskjaer’s side but it wasn’t long before Chris Smalling nudged the ball past David de Gea in trying to keep out Leander Dendoncker and Wolves had the result they probably deserved.
United were far from awful, but they simply didn’t look equipped to deal with the key moments in the game and that will have been a worry for their manager.
It is the first time United have lost after scoring first since the 2-1 loss to Swansea under Louis van Gaal in August 2015, but it can’t be considered a surprise when taking into account their performance level in the important moments of the match.
The ability to raise their game in key periods will potentially define their Champions League destiny against Barcelona over the next couple of midweeks, and they will need to respond far better to have any chance against Messi and company.