There was a horrid sense of inevitability about it.
Roy Keane was right to slam Fred for a brainless challenge on Moussa Djenepo, but only in these unique circumstances, with that particular set of players, would the foul have led to a certain goal. It was in the net before James Ward-Prowse had even placed the ball on the turf and, as referee Jon Moss blew his whistle, Manchester United fans surely shuddered with a terrible sense of foreboding.
A combination of Ward-Prowse’s dead-eyed delivery and David de Gea’s vulnerabilities at his near post proved the undoing of United. Had it not been for Edinson Cavani’s heroics off the bench late on and that would have proven the game’s sliding doors moment.
It may, however, still prove to be a turning point for United.
De Gea’s half-time withdrawal was indeed due to a knee injury rather than the ignominy of being beaten by Ward-Prowse, though Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was quick to say he “can’t promise anything now” over the Spaniard’s place in the United team.
He added: “Dean [Henderson] came on, very assured, had a couple of half-saves to make but he was tidy and safe with the ball at his feet.”
It was exactly what Henderson, and his legion of supporters, would have wanted to hear at exactly the right time. The 23-year-old would have expected to start for United against Istanbul Basaksehir last week in the Champions League, but he was snubbed in favour of De Gea — as has been the case for most of this season.
It is no secret that Henderson has designs on the No.1 goalkeeper’s role with both United and England and, ahead of next summer’s rescheduled European Championship, both appeared to be eluding him until Sunday afternoon at around 2.45pm. The talk of a January loan has been rife in the past fortnight, with everyone from Leeds to Celtic touted for a possible temporary swoop, which made a degree of sense given that need for regular game-time.
Maybe now, the door at Old Trafford has been left ajar for Henderson to knock it down completely. Solskjaer could not provide De Gea any assurances of his place for Wednesday night’s vital Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain at Old Trafford, which may just turn out to be the biggest night in Henderson’s nascent career so far.
If he keeps Kylian Mbappe and Neymar at bay, a regular berth for club and country may not be so far away. It’s certainly there for the taking.
It was always likely that this moment would come once United had decided to keep Henderson and De Gea at the club together. The former Sheffield United loanee has not been a traditional No.2 in the sense of his predecessor Sergio Romero.
He has not stayed quiet, or content with his lot and is known for his bullish confidence, which drives his performance-levels. But those close to Henderson also say that is something of a facade and Solskjaer likes his humility too. He’s United born and bred, a rare top-class goalkeeping prospect, which United would be unwise to discard.
And those watching the second half of United’s 3-2 win at Southampton would have heard Henderson barking instructions at his defence far more than De Gea would ever have done. The likes of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof seemed to benefit from it, as United shook off their first half travails to keep a clean sheet in the second half and win it 3-0. Henderson made a couple of routine but solid saves.
It would be grossly unfair on Cavani to suggest the victory was down to Henderson, but perhaps United have been shown a moment, a glimpse into the future and an opportunity to make a huge decision about the direction in which they are headed.