Manchester United’s Champions League dream came to an abrupt halt as a 3-2 defeat at Wolfsburg saw them eliminated from the competition and drop into the Europa League.
United travelled to the Volkswagen Arena knowing only a victory would guarantee progression into the knockout phase, but defeat, coupled with PSV Eindhoven’s 2-1 victory over CSKA Moscow, saw Louis van Gaal’s side crash out of the group stages for the fourth time in the club’s history.
Anthony Martial’s 10th-minute strike had given United the perfect start on Tuesday night before Wolfsburg wrestled back the initiative with two classy first-half goals from Naldo (13) and Vieirinha (29).
The visitors, who saw a Jesse Lingard goal disallowed late in the first half, looked to have sealed qualification eight minutes from time when Maroune Fellaini’s goal-bound header was deflected into his own net by Joshua Guilavogui.
But Naldo’s second of the night two minutes later sealed United’s fate as the Bundesliga side ended the Red Devils’ 11-game unbeaten to guarantee top spot in Group B.
United travel to Germany with depleted numbers following yet more injures, with Van Gaal forced to hand Guillermo Varela his full debut in a a make-shift United back four.
And Varela’s inexperience almost cost them on three minutes when Max Kruse’s run off the flank left space for Andre Schurrle to get a shot on goal, but the former Chelsea man granted the youngster a reprieve by miscuing his effort over the bar.
Despite this, United weathered the early Wolfsburg storm and were soon in front as Juan Mata slipped Martial in on goal and the Frenchman made no mistake in notching his sixth goal in United colours.
The lead was short-lived, though, as United failed to keep tabs on centre-back Naldo and he expertly volleyed Ricardo Rodriguez’s floated free-kick beyond David de Gea on 13 minutes.
Martial and Mata tried to replicate their combination which had led to United’s first shortly after, before Wolfsburg ‘keeper Diego Benaglio thwarted Fellaini with a fine save on 27 minutes.
And the hosts were in front two minutes later with the goal of the game as the impressive Julian Draxler played a neat one-two with Kruse, carving through the heart of the United defence, before setting up Vieirinha for a simple finish.
United’s injury concerns took a turn for the worse three minutes before the break as Matteo Darmian hobbled off, before United were denied an equaliser as Mata was adjudged to have interfered with play as Benaglio failed to keep out Lingard’s cross.
United dominated the opening stages of the second half, yet came up against ‘keeper in inspired form as Benaglio kept Memphis Depay’s volley out on the hour.
Wolfsburg came within inches of sealing United’s fate as Schurrle’s audacious chipped effort almost caught De Gea off-guard on 64 minutes, before Kruse whistled a volley wide of the United goal.
Following Sergei Ignashevich’s opener for CSKA in Eindhoven, Luuk de Jong’s equaliser for PSV left United on the verge of elimination until Fellaini’s header was sent looping over Schurrle on the line by Guilavogui.
But, just as they had done in the first half, United failed to capitalise on their goal as Naldo’s firm header found its way into the back of the net two minutes later and United crashed into Europe’s second-tier competition for the second time in five seasons.