Resolve. Perseverance. Redemption. This Manchester United victory may not have been anywhere near as beautiful as any of those Sir Bobby Charlton graced, or indeed that tribute to his life, but it displayed some of the club’s soul that he made famous. Because this was obviously about so much more than just beating FC Copenhagen 1-0 late on, or indeed staying in the competition the club’s legend was most built on. It was certainly about so much more for Andre Onana, who had his first great moment at Manchester United in what was a must-win game.
That was maybe what Charlton would have most enjoyed. Doing it when it mattered. A night that started with a gracefully poignant mourning of the great man ended with more appropriate celebration. It ended with deafening and defiant roar, in celebration of a player who has struggled in his first few weeks, in memory of a player who was perhaps the club’s greatest.
And a player that has been pilloried and unpicked in Harry Maguire displayed defiance, scoring the winner for a relatively late 1-0 win. Onana then stepped up by getting it done, keeping it at 1-0 in the 96th minute, and keeping United in this great competition.
The manner of that may not be how anyone wants this great institution to look right now but it was perseverance, exactly what Charlton, his manager and so many of his teammates would have asked for.
The defeated Copenhagen also offered their own memorable contribution to the night beyond a respectable display that made United work, and that final penalty miss by Jordan Larsson. Before the game and throughout, they echoed the Stretford End in singing “there’s only one Bobby Charlton”.
The rest of Old Trafford applauded.
It should be recognised that wasn’t the sentiment that greeted most of the action. This was mostly another poor performance against a limited team, even if it was a third consecutive victory.
Little of it beyond the context will live in the memory. Most would rather forget it. The problem is that it all informs what will be a game that really demands a performance on Sunday, which is the visit of Manchester City for the derby.
United will need to be far sharper.
Some allowances should be made, of course.
Such is the sense of history at United, that these sombre occasions have had the effect of subduing performance. It is as if the beauty of the bagpipes sounding that the club “will never die” makes everyone all too keenly aware of the legacy they are playing for.
It happened on the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the Munich air disaster, dates which brought a 1-1 draw at home to Bolton Wanderers and a 2-1 defeat to a pre-Abu Dhabi Manchester City, respectively.
One difference was that both of those sides were defending champions so, as with those last two wins, this felt like there was more to it than United feeling the weight of the occasion.
It was really like a lot of matches at Old Trafford this season, right down to the way an inferior-resourced opposition side controlled long periods of the game in a way that shouldn’t really have been possible. The only proper action of the first half actually came very quickly after the tributes. Mohamed Elyounoussi just cut through Sofyan Amrabat and Maguire at first, in a way that really shouldn’t have happened, then sending a cross over for Diogo to bounce against the post.
If there were initially fears this could become another chaotic back-and-forth like the Galatasaray defeat, it never got that entertaining, certainly in the first half.
Other than some moments of spark from Rasmus Hojlund, almost nothing happened.
Ten Hag had to try something. Amrabat was removed.
That did see United play a bit more directly, seeking to stretch the pitch more. Hojlund again offered constant warnings, and almost won a penalty straight into the second half. Marcus Rashford was even put through on goal, only to take a heavy touch.
There were, very gradually, however, some positives. Onana looked at his most assured, making one fine save. It was all the more important since the Champions League has been the stage for arguably two of his biggest errors so far.
That, like a lot on the night, made this more important than the individual moment.
United’s was soon to come. Christian Eriksen, who came on for Amrabat, made the delivery. Maguire made the impact.
The centre-half headed home.
United should have been secured.
An anxiety remained. It was betrayed by McTominay’s late foul. So much for the midfielder being a constant saviour.
It was all just prelude and set-up. Onana stepped up.
It was perhaps the most fitting tribute possible.