What was that in the background during our cheerfully free-rolling victory in Russia in the Champions League last night? Did you notice it? Not everywhere, but in places, from certain angles. There was definitely something in those stands at the lavish-looking Krasnodar Stadium where you would normally expect to see a big stretch of canvas, or maybe some cardboard cut-outs.
Seemingly reliable reports from people on the ground suggest that those were fans. Incredible, if true. Actual fans. In a stadium. Getting on for 11,000 of them, sourced locally, apparently, according to some narratives. Well, I’m reserving judgement until I know more. But it’s quite the development if it turns out to be accurate. Real people, watching a game in the actual place where it’s being played, rather than at home on television. An extraordinary concept. I wonder if it will ever catch on.
Either way, our players seemed to enjoy it. Indeed, it seemed to fire our refashioned frontline to do the things that, greedily, we have all been wanting to see them do from the start, though, of course, these things take time. But if fans in the stadium translate to a goal for Hakim Ziyech, a goal and an assist for Timo Werner, assists for Kai Havertz and Tammy Abraham, and further goals for Cristian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi, then I think the presence of spectators is a concept we can all get behind pretty whole-heartedly going forward.
It was some redemption, too, for that strikingly pink-hued change strip after its difficult Premier League debut against West Brom. Its critics might deride it as a Crystal Palace shirt which has gone in the wash with a bag of Pick’n’Mix, but they, too, can eat their words at this stage. Whether or not fans in the ground played a part, this is now officially a shirt that gets emphatic results away from home in the Champions League.
It might have been even more emphatic, of course, had Jorginho’s first-half penalty not defied science and stayed out. That incident immediately saw twitchy-fingered pundits on social media urging Jorginho to give up the ‘fancy’ hop-and-skip method and just blast it like Matt Le Tissier would have done. It’s invariably Matt Le Tissier who gets dragged into the argument whenever boutique penalty stylings are coming under pressure. And fair enough: 47 out of 48 career penalties is a fairly decent, and indeed unrivalled, return. But none of those penalties was in the Champions League, of course. And the ball was so much heavier back in those distant days, what with the lacing and all that dubbin. Impossible to save.
One should also note that there are different kinds of penalty miss. There’s clownishly blazing it over the bar and into the stand, and there’s somehow, as Jorginho did in Russia, contriving to find the sole freakish angle that will bring the ball back off the post and the goalkeeper without eventually finding its way into the net.
Even now, Jorginho has missed just three out of the 26 penalties he has taken in his career, and is therefore good for more than eight goals from the spot for every one that goes astray. I, personally, wouldn’t be writing off the hop and skip method at this juncture, even though Timo Werner’s firmer approach, as witnessed in the second half, has a lot going for it, too. (If Werner had taken one against Spurs, we might still be in the Carabao Cup.)
Overall, a sense of some steam being gathered was hard to ignore. That was a third consecutive clean sheet coming after the reassuring 0-0s against Sevilla and in Manchester, against United, where, even these days, a goalless draw can be accounted a more-or-less decent return, especially when, as last week, the game coincides with the monsoon season.
And last Saturday’s was, of course, a result which could have been even more satisfying if either the referee, his assistant or any of the crack unit of eagle-eyed video scrutinisers operating from the forensic department at Stockley Park had managed to spot Harry Maguire’s plain-as-daylight mugging of Cesar Azpilicueta in a built-up penalty area.
The more you examine it, the less the United centre back’s throttling resembles a game clip and the more it resembles an opening scene from a neglected episode of ‘Midsomer Murders’. I couldn’t make up my mind what was more hilariously naked: the offence itself or Gary Neville, in the Sky commentary box, hastily trying to water it down in the re-telling.
For those who missed it, the former United defender’s instant and priceless notion, as the replay rolled, was that it ‘didn’t look too bad’ and that Maguire’s arm – by which I took him to mean the one wrapped right around Dave’s windpipe - was ‘more resting on him’.
Officer! I was only resting on him!
Yet, from all those tech-empowered, hindsight-aware officials, not so much as a peep. It was one of those decisions where you could only walk away, shaking your head, before seeking out the mental file marked ‘very Old Trafford’. I guess it’s nice to feel that, even in the continuing absence of fans (give or take 10,500 Russians), these distinguished traditions persist.