Juan Mata scored one goal and made another as Manchester United came from behind to beat Wolfsburg 2-1 on Wednesday and kick their Champions League campaign into gear.
Beaten 2-1 at PSV Eindhoven in their opening game two weeks ago, Louis van Gaal’s side fell behind to a fourth-minute Daniel Caligiuri goal at Old Trafford before Mata rode to the home team’s rescue.
The Spain midfielder won and scored a 34th-minute penalty and then set up Chris Smalling with a stunning improvised flick eight minutes into the second half to give improving United a fourth consecutive victory.
United are back on top of the Premier League for the first time in two years and their defeat of Wolfsburg, coupled with PSV’s 3-2 loss at CSKA Moscow, left them in a four-way tie for first place in Group B ahead of their trip to the Russian capital on October 21.
Wolfsburg finished the game strongly but could not prevent a fourth successive defeat in England, which left last season’s German Cup winners and Bundesliga runners-up without a win in three matches.
Luke Shaw’s graphic double leg break at PSV has forced United into a defensive reshuffle that has seen Antonio Valencia come into the team at right-back and it was courtesy of the Ecuadorian’s sleepiness that Wolfsburg went ahead.
Daniel Caligiuri opened the scoring in the fourth minute
Darting in from the right flank, Caligiuri laid the ball off to Max Kruse before running into the box for the return pass and, with Valencia the only defender not to step up, the Wolfsburg winger had all the time he needed to place a shot past David de Gea.
Old Trafford was silenced, but before long Wolfsburg were struggling to get out of their own penalty area.
Mata saw a goal-bound shot headed over the bar by Dante and fired a snapshot straight at Diego Benaglio, Bastian Schweinsteiger curled over and Anthony Martial shot wide with his left foot after explosively bursting between Dante and Ricardo Rodriguez.
The Frenchman electrified the crowd every time he got the ball and in the 26th minute he danced to the byline before picking out Wayne Rooney, only for the United captain to blaze the ball over from 12 yards.
Mata was also keeping Wolfsburg’s defenders on their toes and after he had picked out Memphis Depay for a header that failed to trouble Benaglio, he provoked the penalty with a cross that struck Caligiuri’s outstretched arm.
The Spaniard took the kick himself — as Rooney, United’s regular penalty-taker, looked on — and tucked it into the bottom-left corner.
Mata then picked out Depay for a shot that Benaglio blocked with his legs and, after Ashley Young had come on for Valencia at half-time, the former Chelsea man created the crucial second goal with an arresting piece of improvisation.
Schweinsteiger’s mishit shot from outside the box looked to be bouncing behind Mata, but United’s number eight jutted out his leg and back-heeled the ball into the box, where Smalling ghosted in to beat Benaglio.
Shortly after, De Gea had to save at his near post from Caligiuri, but with United standing firm, Wolfsburg coach Dieter Hecking turned to his bench, sending on Nicklas Bendtner and Andre Schuerrle for the last 20 minutes.
It coincided with a loss of composure in the United midfield brought on by Van Gaal’s decision to send on Phil Jones for Schweinsteiger, but despite Wolfsburg pressing — Schuerrle drilling a shot across goal and Rodriguez whipping a free-kick narrowly wide — United held on.