The times they are a-changing us in ways, large and small, that we didn’t see coming. Normally, sitting on the sofa soaking up some sport, I’m a sucker for a cliffhanger. Watching cricket, which is part of my job, I’d rather see England lose by a whisker than win by an innings.
With football, I’m less professional and not quite so sporting. So let’s hear it for a match nobody would pick as the best game ever, unless they are Odion Ighalo’s mum: Lask 0-5 Manchester United.
It’s not my all-time favourite game but it is my latest favourite game, which counts for rather too much right now. Loving sport means living in the moment and the one we’re in is refusing to end. It’s the freeze frame on your screen that you can’t flick away.
United’s last outing before lockdown wasn’t the final game of a league campaign and as such tinged with the pointlessness of the pre-season friendly. It was a trip to Linz in Austria for the first leg of a knockout fixture. It was in the Europa League, a tournament you can afford to be sniffy about only if your club aren’t in it, sniffiness, as ever, telling us more about the sniffy than about the thing sniffed at.
Some might sniff because it took place behind closed doors. The local term is a geisterspiel, or ghost game – which is evocative, though not definitive. It did sound ghostly but football isn’t just played by ear; it’s felt in the gut, mulled in the brain, prized by the eye. A match behind closed doors is still a thing to behold and appraise and discuss. As kids, we all played in games that were witnessed by three parents and a dog, yet they still felt important. Lask v United will have been watched by maybe a million fans around the world and followed by millions more. It showed that football with eerie acoustics is far better than nothing.
You can always tell if the players care and they did. There were goals to be scored, places to be sealed, runs of form to be maintained. For United fans the past seven years have been faintly biblical, the famine that follows the glut. It’s been a tale of four managers, no league titles and liberal use of the word turgid.
This match started like that, then changed course when Ighalo juggled the ball from foot to foot, as if making a video in his garden, and scorched the underside of the bar. The finish was so fabulous that the assist, a typically cute flick from Bruno Fernandes, was barely noticed.
The game wasn’t a rout. Lask were respectable, getting half the possession and some decent chances, until Ighalo fed Daniel James, who slalomed in from the left and slotted home as if August had never ended. Then Juan Mata finished crisply after playing a singular one-two with Fred – both longish balls, unfolding in slow motion, yet still splitting the defence. If it had been a painting, it would have been labelled School of Michael Carrick.
A pair of subs, Mason Greenwood and Tahith Chong, saw that painting and reproduced it with broader brushstrokes. Only the fifth goal, a long shot from Andreas Pereira, was down to poor defending.
With seven first-teamers missing (Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford injured, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Anthony Martial rested, David de Gea, Victor Lindelöf and Nemanja Matic benched), United had put on a proper show. It summed up their unbeaten run, going from solidity to creativity to scoring for fun. For the last 40 minutes, they played with the very thing we were all about to lose: freedom.