On a rainy night at Old Trafford, it looked like another match bound for a scoreless draw as Manchester United and CSKA Moscow struggled to score. Late in the match, though, Wayne Rooney finally found a way to the back of the net, breaking Manchester's goalless streak at 404 minutes and giving his team a 1-0 win and three vital points in their Champions League group.
The less said about the first half, the better. It was extraordinarily dull, with both teams struggling to hold possession or generate quality chances at goal, with sloppy execution and a slow pace all over the pitch. Manchester were particularly poor for much of the half, with several promising counters wasted by poor passing, and a 1-2 between Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney that had Martial clear through on goal ruined by Rooney blasting his return pass well away from Martial.
The second half started similarly, but CSKA made a big change with their first sub. Leonid Slutsky brought on Seydou Doumbia, who many had tipped to be a problem for Manchester's defense before the match, and put him up top alongside Ahemd Musa, and that helped add a significant threat to the Russian side's attack. There were a number of nervy moments for Manchester's back line when CSKA got forward on the counter with Doumbia leading the charge, especially from Daley Blind, and there were times that only bad luck and bad execution kept the visitors from scoring.
Manchester weren't having much better luck on the other end, particularly when Rooney couldn't get the ball out from under his feet for what would have been a sure goal from two yards out. It looked certain that they'd fail to score for a fourth straight match, and fans weren't happy about it, with boos falling down with the rain at every missed chance and with United's first two substitutions as well.
Those boos turned to raucous cheering in the 79th minute, though, when Rooney finally scored to give Manchester the lead and the win. The result puts Manchester United on top of Group B, thanks to PSV beating Wolfsburg in the Netherlands in the group's other match, but they can't be comfortable in that position right now. With two matches to go, only three points separate first-place Manchester from fourth-place CSKA Moscow, with PSV and Wolfsburg tied one point behind Manchester. This group is going all the way down to the wire, and with the struggles all four teams have had at times, it's impossible to say yet who is finishing where.
Manchester United: David de Gea; Ashley Young, Chris Smalling, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo; Bastian Schweinsteiger, Michael Carrick; Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata (Memphis Depay 74'), Anthony Martial (Marouane Feillaini 65'); Wayne Rooney
Goals: Rooney (79')
CSKA Moscow: Igor Akinfeev; Mario Fernandes, Sergei Ignashevic, Alexei Berezutski, Georgi Schennikov; Pontus Wernbloom, Alan Dzagoev (Kirill Panchenko 85'); Zorin Tosic (Aleksandr Golovin 75'), Bibras Natcho (Seydou Doumbia 55'), Georgi Milanov; Ahmed Musa
1. Does the Daley Blind, center back experiment have to continue?
Look, Blind does a lot of things well. He retains possession excellently, he reads play decently, and he's always available for an outlet pass when a teammate near him is in trouble. But as a center back, most of those aspects are rendered to secondary importance, and the most vital of those, his vision, is also the weakest of those three traits for him. In terms of what a center back often needs to do -- play strong against a striker, be able to adjust on the fly against a counter, or providing quality defense on set pieces -- Blind is very good at any of those things. He'd be very good as a defensively-minded fullback, or even as a defensive midfielder in the system Manchester are playing right now, but as a center back? Please, no more. This is not good.
2. CSKA Moscow are good, but not that good
Manchester were really not good at all in this match, especially in the first half. If CSKA had put together a performance worthy of the talent in their squad, they could have won this match easily. The problem is, they didn't. Part of that is odd personnel and tactical choices by Slutsky -- Ahmed Musa as a lone striker and Alan Dzagoev as the most defensive midfielder say hello -- but it's also on the players themselves, because they left a lot of gorgeous chances to exploit Manchester's shakiness sitting out on the pitch. Until they get that killer instinct, they'll be good enough to dominate in Russia, but not good enough to be a power in the Champions League.
3. It's time to put Michael Carrick out to pasture
Look, Manchester have some depth issues in midfield right now, and they're playing a style that emphasizes keeping possession. But Carrick has been terrible lately, and he was especially so in this match. How many times did he pass straight to CSKA's goalkeeper or a defender when Manchester were breaking forward on a counter, or just pass it well away from anyone's run? How often did he force the ball to an unmoving Rooney, when Martial or Jesse Lingard were making a run to get behind CSKA's attack? Everything Michael Carrick offers Manchester, Anders Herrera does better at this point, and he's mobile to boot. Carrick used to be good, but he's 34 and clearly well into the downside of his career. Manchester need to move on for the good of their team.