Football

Anthony Elanga keeps Man United’s Champions League hopes alive, picking up slack of Rashford & Co.

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MADRID — Anthony Elanga is quickly becoming indispensable to Manchester United, and at just 19 years old, he may have kept his club’s Champions League ambitions alive with a crucial equalizer to earn a 1-1 draw in their round-of-16 first- leg match against Atletico Madrid at the Estadio Metropolitano.

Prior to Elanga’s goal, United had been abject against Diego Simeone’s team Wednesday, failing to register a shot on target and being outrun and outfought by their determined opponents, who started without five key players because of injury, suspension or lack of match fitness. Elanga had been on the pitch for only five minutes, having replaced the disappointing Marcus Rashford on 75 minutes, but the Sweden U21 forward produced a nerveless finish to guide Bruno Fernandes’s pass beyond goalkeeper Jan Oblak with a first-time shot with his right foot to score his first Champions League goal.

« I think it was my first touch, » Elanga said after the match. « I have dreamed of moments like this, scoring in the Champions League against top European teams like Atletico Madrid, a dream come true.

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« I told you how calm and cool I am, and whenever I am given an opportunity, I want to repay the manager and give 150% every time I step onto the pitch. »

United interim manager Ralf Rangnick has made some pretty effective substitutions in recent weeks — none more so than when seeing Elanga and Fred score twice in quick succession to seal a 4-2 win at Leeds United on Sunday after being sent on in the second half — and he did so again by switching Rashford for Elanga against last season’s LaLiga champions.

And during his brief appearance, Elanga looked sharper, hungrier and much more decisive than the player he replaced. Rashford appears to be suffering a crisis of confidence right now — hardly surprising considering he has scored just twice in 18 appearances since the end of October — but his lack of form is being exacerbated by his body language, which hints at a growing frustration with himself and his teammates.

Where Elanga was clinical with his finish and energetic in his pressing, Rashford’s decision-making repeatedly let him down, and he led to a booking for a second-half foul after one loose pass too many. Elanga and United need to be mindful of Rashford’s slump in form, though, because it wasn’t so long ago that he was performing the role that Elanga is doing at the moment.

On Feb. 25, 2016, Rashford burst onto the scene with two goals on his debut in the 5-1 Europa League win against FC Midtjylland at Old Trafford. He scored twice on his Premier League debut against Arsenal and, after eight goals in 18 games, he made England’s Euro 2016 squad.

Rashford was 18 at the time, and he played with a freedom that suggested he didn’t have a care in the world, just like Elanga right now. Times have changed, and Rashford is now a senior player wondering where his next goal or good performance will come from, so Elanga — who became United’s youngest ever goal scorer in the Champions League knockout stages — must be aware of the pitfalls that lie ahead.

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« Anthony, in all the games he has played so far, he just shows that he’s playing with all the passion and all the fun, he’s just enjoying himself on the pitch, » Rangnick said. « He’s fully aware of his strengths, of his assets and his weapons. He is always trying to play and show those weapons. »

Make no mistake, though, he is bringing a crucial freshness to the United forward line, and Rangnick needs him to keep performing while Rashford struggles and Cristiano Ronaldo — with just one goal in nine appearances in 2022 — searches for the cutting edge he displayed when he returned to Old Trafford at the start of this season. In truth, Elanga’s goal against Atletico papered over plenty of cracks that appeared for United in the Spanish capital.

Their inconsistency and appearance of being a disjointed team is why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was fired in November, with Rangnick taking interim charge in early December. The former TSG Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig coach has tweaked the tactics and made changes to personnel on the pitch, and United have lost just once in 16 games under his leadership, but they remain a team with significant problems.

Against a top team and elite coach in Atletico and Simeone, United’s weaknesses were exploited. Geoffrey Kondogbia dominated in midfield against a United side that lacked bite without the ill Scott McTominay and, without any sense of being in control of the game, Fernandes, Ronaldo and Rashford contributed little of value.

And at right-back, where Rangnick surprisingly selected centre-half Victor Lindelof ahead of full-backs Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Diogo Dalot, United were repeatedly targeted by Simeone’s team, who went ahead on seven minutes when Joao Felix scored with a diving header from Renan Lodi’s cross from United’s right flank. Atletico failed to extend their lead, although Sime Vrsaljko and Antoine Griezmann both hit the bar for the Spanish champions, and United were fortunate to still be in the game when Elanga was thrown on in the closing stages.

« What we played in the first half I still cannot believe, » Rangnick said. « We played without conviction, without aggression, and that is why we were struggling. We have to play better in the first half — I was very disappointed by that performance in the first half.

« We have to play with more conviction on the ball, we need more deep runs, and the way we scored the goal was exactly that. This is how we have to play against them. »

By salvaging a draw through Elanga’s goal, though, United will face Atletico at Old Trafford next month knowing that a better performance should see them into the quarterfinals and end their miserable run against Spanish opponents. In each of the past four seasons, United’s European campaigns have ended with defeat against Spanish clubs.

At times, a fifth successive Spanish exit, this time at the hands of Atletico, seemed inevitable, but Elanga has kept United on course for the last eight.

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