• Daniel Caligiuri took advantage of Antonio Valencia’s defensive mistake to open the scoring for the visiting side
  • Wayne Rooney had a golden opportunity to score for the hosts but the United striker’s shot landed in the stands
  • Wolfsburg’s goalscorer was then adjudged to have handled the ball in the box and Juan Mata leveled from the spot
  • Mata produced a sublime flick to set up Chris Smalling for United’s winner early in the second half at Old Trafford
  • Louis van Gaal’s Red Devils are now level on three points with CSKA Moscow, PSV and Wolfsburg in Group B

Ian Ladyman for the Daily Mail

For an hour on Wednesday night, Manchester United were in something approaching full flow, full of pass and move and fluency. Full of rhythm and stealth.

For 15 minutes either side of that, though, they were poor. They were vulnerable and uncertain and skittish. It was, as it turned out, another contradictory performance in an altogether contradictory season.

Maybe we should expect this. United are after all a work in progress. Or maybe they just aren’t quite good enough. Maybe they are relying on key players too heavily, maybe the squad is slightly too thin.  

Manchester United defender Chris Smalling (right) celebrates with Memphis Depay after scoring his side's winning goal on Wednesday

Manchester United defender Chris Smalling (right) celebrates with Memphis Depay after scoring his side’s winning goal on Wednesday

The Manchester United team celebrate together after Smalling had given his side the lead in their Champions League clash with Wolfsburg

The Manchester United team celebrate together after Smalling had given his side the lead in their Champions League clash with Wolfsburg

The England defender latched onto Juan Mata's sublime backheel flick and beat the Bundesliga outfit's offside trap to poke home

The England defender latched onto Juan Mata’s sublime backheel flick and beat the Bundesliga outfit’s offside trap to poke home

Smalling sneaked in around the back of the defence and scored beyond keeper Diego Benaglio in the Wolfsburg goal at Old Trafford

Smalling sneaked in around the back of the defence and scored beyond keeper Diego Benaglio in the Wolfsburg goal at Old Trafford

MATCH FACTS AND RATINGS 

MANCHESTER UNITED (4-2-3-1): De Gea 6; Valencia 4 (Young 45mins 7), Smalling 7, Blind 7, Darmian 6.5; Schneiderlin 6.5, Schweinsteiger 6.5 (Jones 71mins 6.5); Mata 8, Rooney 5, Depay 6.5 (Pereira 61mins 6); Martial 7.5

Goals: Mata (pen) 33, Smalling 53

Subs not used: Wilson, Romero, Fellaini, McNair

Booked: Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger

WOLFSBURG (4-2-3-1): Benaglio 6; Trasch 6 (Jung 76mins 6), Naldo 6, Dante 6.5, Rodriguez 6.5; Guilavogui 6, Arnold 6.5 (Schurrle 69mins 6.5); Caligiuri 6.5, Kruse 7, Draxler 7; Dost 6 (Bendtner 69mins 6)

Goal: Kruse 4

Subs not used: Seguin, Grun, Klose, Schafer 

Booked: Caligiuri

Referee: Viktor Cass 5

MOM: Juan Mata

Player ratings by Joe Bernstein 

Time will no doubt tell us but, whatever the case, what we do know is that they are inching forwards gradually under Louis van Gaal.

Top of the Barclays Premier League and now in decent shape in Europe after defeat at PSV earlier in the month, this was a big night for the modern United. It has indeed been a big five days and certainly Van Gaal would have taken this in the days before another uncertain transfer window ended back in August.

At the end, after late Wolfsburg pressure had come to nothing, Old Trafford broke out in to something approaching genuine joy.

It’s been a while since we have heard that in Europe. Partly it was motivated by relief. This was a game that United had to win. At times they looked as though they would do it comfortably and then, latterly, they looked as though they may not win it all. Like we said, the overriding emotion was relief.

Rather typically, had United started badly. It has often been this way this season and they were a goal down after four minutes.

Artistically, it was a lovely goal, too, Wolfsburg passing the ball accurately and crisply between the static lines of the United defence before Max Kruse played in Daniel Caliguiri and the right-sided forward drove the ball past David de Gea with his instep from about ten yards.

From a defensive point of view, however, it was a horror show. United’s players were slow to react to Wolfsburg’s interchanges and when the final pass arrived in to the goal scorer, Antonio Valencia was standing so deep he may as well have been selling pies in the Stretford End.

So, a goal down and United faced some questions. For a few minutes, they appeared a little cowed but over time improvement did come and with it some signs of confidence.

As United began to dominate the Bundesliga team in midfield, playmaker Juan Mata and centre forward Anthony Martial began to impose themselves on a rather uncertain back four and United actually should have been level before they were.

Mata came close on two occasions, seeing one goal-bound shot headed over by central defender Dante and then driving a first time shot with his left foot straight at goalkeeper Diego Benaglio from 14 yards. 

Match-winner Smalling is congratulated by his delighted manager Louis van Gaal (right) following United's Champions League victory 

Match-winner Smalling is congratulated by his delighted manager Louis van Gaal (right) following United’s Champions League victory 

Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea celebrates after helping his side earn a Champions League win over the Bundesliga outfit

Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea celebrates after helping his side earn a Champions League win over the Bundesliga outfit

Former Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner (right) and his Wolfsburg team-mates are left dejected after losing 2-1 against the Red Devils

Former Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner (right) and his Wolfsburg team-mates are left dejected after losing 2-1 against the Red Devils

Wolfsburg had taken the lead early on when Antonio Valencia failed to step up with his fellow defenders and Daniel Caligiuri fired home

Wolfsburg had taken the lead early on when Antonio Valencia failed to step up with his fellow defenders and Daniel Caligiuri fired home

The Wolfsburg midfielder latched onto a through ball after Valencia played the visitors onside and he confidently scored for his side

The Wolfsburg midfielder latched onto a through ball after Valencia played the visitors onside and he confidently scored for his side

Goalkeeper De Gea was left to pick the ball up from the back of the net within the opening five minutes of the Champions League game

Goalkeeper De Gea was left to pick the ball up from the back of the net within the opening five minutes of the Champions League game

Caligiuri celebrates his goal with his Wolfsburg team-mates after shocking the Premier League giants at Old Trafford on Wednesday

Caligiuri celebrates his goal with his Wolfsburg team-mates after shocking the Premier League giants at Old Trafford on Wednesday

Red Devils captain Rooney (left) and Anthony Martial prepare to restart the game after going 1-0 down against the German side

Red Devils captain Rooney (left) and Anthony Martial prepare to restart the game after going 1-0 down against the German side

United midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger (left) battles for the ball in the middle of the park with France international Josuha Guilavogui

United midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger (left) battles for the ball in the middle of the park with France international Josuha Guilavogui

Martial also dispatched a shot off target after cutting inside on to his left side before setting up the chance of the half that Wayne Rooney somehow contrived to spurn.

Martial’s goal scoring has caught the eye since his arrival at the club, of course, but it is the teenager’s ability to stand up and then go by defenders that is most impressive and he did it again here in the 26th minute only for Rooney to scoop the ball over an unguarded goal.

That was a dreadful moment for the United captain but still his team kept coming, Memphis Depay heading a superb Mata pass straight at the goalkeeper moments later.

By now Wolfsburg were pretty much penned in their own half and United finally drew level, Mata converting a penalty that he had won himself, Caliguiri handling his cross inside the area in the 33rd minute.

At this point United were dominant and Mata, in particular, was in his element. Too often since his arrival from Chelsea almost two years ago, he has adorned games rather than changed them.

Wayne Rooney had a golden opportunity to score for the hosts but the United striker failed to tap the ball home into an unguarded net

Wayne Rooney had a golden opportunity to score for the hosts but the United striker failed to tap the ball home into an unguarded net

The home side were then given an opportunity to level the scores when goalscorer Caligiuri was adjudged to have handled in the area

The home side were then given an opportunity to level the scores when goalscorer Caligiuri was adjudged to have handled in the area

Juan Mata confidently stepped up to slot the ball home into the bottom left corner of the goal to make it 1-1 at Old Trafford

Juan Mata confidently stepped up to slot the ball home into the bottom left corner of the goal to make it 1-1 at Old Trafford

Many had expected captain Rooney to take the penalty but it was Mata who stepped up and the Spaniard scored from the spot

Many had expected captain Rooney to take the penalty but it was Mata who stepped up and the Spaniard scored from the spot

The former Chelsea midfielder celebrates his equaliser from the penalty spot with Memphis Depay (centre) and Schweinsteiger 

The former Chelsea midfielder celebrates his equaliser from the penalty spot with Memphis Depay (centre) and Schweinsteiger 

Mata points to the Old Trafford stands after the midfield maestro leveled the scores for Louis van Gaal's side on Wednesday evening 

Mata points to the Old Trafford stands after the midfield maestro leveled the scores for Louis van Gaal’s side on Wednesday evening 

Manchester United shot-stopper De Gea celebrates his team's first goal of the evening as he bids to help his side earn a victory

Manchester United shot-stopper De Gea celebrates his team’s first goal of the evening as he bids to help his side earn a victory

Schweinsteiger is tackled by Caligiuri during the Premier League side's Champions League clash against their Bundesliga opponents

Schweinsteiger is tackled by Caligiuri during the Premier League side’s Champions League clash against their Bundesliga opponents

United supporters hold up banners in the Old Trafford stands in tribute to midfielder Schweinsteiger and manager Van Gaal

United supporters hold up banners in the Old Trafford stands in tribute to midfielder Schweinsteiger and manager Van Gaal

On Wednesday, though, he was exceptional and it was his flick with the heel that allowed Chris Smalling to dart forwards and poke in what transpired to be the winner in the 53rd minute.

Mata’s part in the goal was interesting, either ingenious or lucky. Whatever the case, it served to indicate the growing confidence of a player enjoying his best game in a red shirt.

With Mata in such fine fettle and Martial and Depay proving hard to control, only Rooney looked out of sorts. As such United should have had enough on the field to put their foot to the throat.

Instead, rather inexplicably, Van Gaal’s team appeared to relax and, as the grip loosened, so Wolfsburg arrived back in the game.

The German team had been invisible as an attacking force ever since they scored but suddenly here they were again, pinning United back in their own half, making them look ordinary and unsure once more.

Substitute Andre Schurrle almost scored after dizzying Matteo Darmian while a free-kick from Ricardo Rodriguez worried De Gea as it passed wide.

Wolfsburg would not have deserved a draw but nevertheless they could have taken one. Amid the relief and the slowly growing optimism at Old Trafford, this will be a salutary thought. 

Manchester United are now level on three points with the rest of Group B following their well-earned 2-1 victory over Wolfsburg

Manchester United are now level on three points with the rest of Group B following their well-earned 2-1 victory over Wolfsburg

The Premier League side won the game after Smalling finished off a fine move - CLICK HERE for the full Match Zone

The Premier League side won the game after Smalling finished off a fine move – CLICK HERE for the full Match Zone

England striker Rooney leaps high above Guilavogui to win the ball as the striker attempts to win back possession for his team

England striker Rooney leaps high above Guilavogui to win the ball as the striker attempts to win back possession for his team

Depay goes close to scoring for the home side with a diving header during United's European clash against the German side

Depay goes close to scoring for the home side with a diving header during United’s European clash against the German side

The Holland winger tussles with Wolfsburg midfielder Christian Trasch in an attempt to win the ball back for Van Gaal's Red Devils

The Holland winger tussles with Wolfsburg midfielder Christian Trasch in an attempt to win the ball back for Van Gaal’s Red Devils

United were soon in front in the second half when Smalling did excellently to read Mata's backheel flick to make it 2-1 to United

United were soon in front in the second half when Smalling did excellently to read Mata’s backheel flick to make it 2-1 to United

After losing their opening Champions League clash with PSV, Smalling's second-half winner ensured United put that result behind them

After losing their opening Champions League clash with PSV, Smalling’s second-half winner ensured United put that result behind them

Smalling, who impressed for United, celebrates after given his side a 2-1 lead in their vital Champions League match with Wolfsburg 

Smalling, who impressed for United, celebrates after given his side a 2-1 lead in their vital Champions League match with Wolfsburg 

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