Erik ten Hag praised goalkeeper Andre Onana for putting a difficult start to life at Manchester United behind him and saving the day in a narrow Champions League escape against Copenhagen.
Having kicked off Group A with defeats to Bayern Munich and Galatasaray, the Red Devils could ill-afford any slip-up against the Danish champions in Tuesday’s Old Trafford encounter.
Onana was guilty of poor performances in both of those Champions League losses but helped make amends in a brilliant conclusion to an emotional first home game since the death of Sir Bobby Charlton.
The United keeper saved Jordan Larsson’s stoppage-time penalty with what proved to be the last touch of the match, ensuring Harry Maguire’s second-half header sealed a crucial 1-0 win.
“He showed personality and he knows that before was not the levels what his skills are,” manager Ten Hag said of the summer signing from Inter Milan. “He didn’t match his skills and he could do better.
“I think Saturday (against Sheffield United) was a very good performance and today as well.
“Also, don’t forget that brilliant save just after half-time in the counter-attack.
“But, of course, that is one of his skills, he is a very good penalty saver.”
Onana’s save sparked wild celebrations at a rocking Old Trafford, where he was mobbed by team-mates before United’s substitutes poured onto the pitch.
“You see there is a very good spirit in the dressing room,” said Ten Hag, who claimed not to have seen Alejandro Garnacho scuffing the penalty spot.
“They are together, they fight together and they celebrate together.
“If we have setbacks, they support each other. I think that spirit is always needed to be a successful team.”
United have won three straight matches in all competitions despite some unconvincing performances and improvements are needed against reigning Premier League champions Manchester City on Sunday.
“First half no good, difficult,” Ten Hag said. “They were well organised, Copenhagen.
“It was difficult to create chances. We didn’t get the right build-up, so we didn’t get the tempo in the game.
For all Mancunians, for us, for Sir Bobby Charlton ❤️ We are UNITED pic.twitter.com/cIb30pgovv
— Andre Onana (@AndreyOnana) October 24, 2023
“The second half I think was better. In the first half, we got some press on but not in many occasions or in a long period.
“In the second half, both things were better and the build-up was better
“The construction was better, more switches and also we created more chances. I think finally the win was justified but it was a narrow escape.”
This was certainly a let-off for a United side who had the frequently-criticised Maguire to thank as well as Onana.
The defender’s future appeared elsewhere having been stripped of the captaincy during a summer of speculation, but he has now made three straight starts and scored the key goal on Tuesday.
“He is playing much more proactive in possession, stepping in, passing vertical,” the Dutchman said. “Defending also on the front foot, also stepping in, defending forward.
“Very confident in the duels. I think he is dominating, in the right moment putting in the aggression and dominating his opponents.
“Then you see you also get rewarded, of course it’s a very good skill from him his heading, but I have to say great pass from Christian (Eriksen) as well but a very good finish.”
These sides now return to domestic matters before resuming battle in Denmark in the reverse fixture on November 8.
Copenhagen head coach Jacob Neestrup said: “We all know that we played a match where we allowed ourselves to get at least one point.
“We had a big chance to score in the closing seconds, so that hurts. It really hurts.
“I don’t believe in bad luck in football. Football is decided by important saves or goals, and in terms of that, we have been unable to tip it in our favour in the first three matches, which have led to one point. Those are the hard facts.”