Omonia's Nigerian goalkeeper Francis Uzoho (R) shares a joke with Manchester United's Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo (L) during the UEFA Europa League Group E football match between Manchester United and Omonoia Nicosia, at Old Trafford stadium, in Manchester, north-west England, on October 13, 2022. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

How was Neil Lennon feeling then, after that? “Great,” he replied, deadpan, the joke being that Neil Lennon was not feeling particularly great at all. But really, despite the disappointment, despite the heartache, despite how Omonia Nicosia had snatched a stoppage-time defeat from the jaws of the greatest result in their history, Lennon’s overwhelming feeling was one of pride.

“I’m very proud of the team obviously,”

“Very proud of this man sitting to my left.” And, in fact, the man sitting to Lennon’s left was feeling a whole lot better than Lennon.

He said.

Players do not usually join their managers for post-match press conferences in the Europa League group stage but Francis Uzoho’s performance demanded his presence. Omonia’s stand-in goalkeeper – who only started due to a shoulder injury to the first-choice – spent most of the post-match debrief sitting back on his chair, sipping from a bottle of water, listening to Lennon’s praise of his performance and occasionally breaking into a smile.

When questions were put to him, he could not hide his delight.

“It’s my best performance, I have to admit,”

“I’m very happy.” He had every right to be.

Uzoho said.

By the final whistle, Manchester United had managed 34 shots on Uzoho’s goal. Thirteen of those were on target. Uzoho saved twelve. The first came as early as the second minute of play. Marcus Rashford’s curling, dipping effort was clawed out of the top right-hand corner, pushed over the crossbar for a corner. It was a good save. On any ordinary night, it would have been his best, but this was not an ordinary night.

With his second, Uzoho denied Rashford again, rushing off his line and getting a left hand down low underneath his body. The third pushed another Rashford attempt around the post. You had to squint to see the fourth – scrub the replay footage back and forth, searching for an infinitesimal trace of a fingertip – but it was there. There was just enough of a touch to nudge Casemiro’s 30-yard belter onto the crossbar.

In hindsight, perhaps that one was the pick of the bunch, but what made this goalkeeping display so thrilling to witness in the moment was the range of saves, from the acrobatic to the instinctive. When Uzoho parried Antony’s effort into Rashford’s path, only to also then stop the follow-up, the impression was of a goalkeeper seeing the ball in bullet time. That double save came only seconds into the second half, but such was Uzoho’ focus, there was no chance of him being caught cold.

Another double save followed minutes later, with Fred’s attempt only half held but the prized scalp of a Cristiano Ronaldo shot gathered up on the rebound. Not every one of Uzoho’s saves was spectacular. Bruno Fernandes’ subsequent attempt to connect with a header while leaning backwards was mere catching practice. The Omonia goalkeeper had already had plenty of that all night.

By this point, Uzoho was playing so well he was pulling saves that did not technically exist. When Rashford was put in over the top one-on-one in the 59th minute and blazed horribly wide, referee Jerome Brisard signalled for a corner. That would imply the final touch coming off an Omonia player. The only player it could possibly have touched was Uzoho as it passed him. Despite all the replay evidence to the contrary, it was logged in the data as a shot on target and another save.

No matter. By that stage, those sorts of statistical anomalies were only embellishing a growing legend. Ronaldo was denied once more for the eleventh, Scott McTominay at distance for the twelfth. Yet it was United’s thirteenth shot on target, in the third minute of stoppage time, again from McTominay, that was the difference between one of the best performances by a visiting goalkeeper at Old Trafford in recent memory and that same goalkeeper leaving with a clean sheet.

If we’re being picky, Uzoho could do a little better on the goal. He is not especially quick to get down to McTominay’s shot. The ball’s already crossed the line by the time he hits the ground. It’s a powerful strike at close range and hard to stop, but maybe if he had used his feet rather than his hands, he may still have beaten it away. A similar criticism could have been made of him back in March, on a shot from much further out by Thomas Partey, for the away goal that sent Ghana to the World Cup and ended Nigeria’s hopes of playing in Qatar.

Uzoho was widely blamed for Nigeria’s failure to qualify, which compelled international team-mates to rush to his defence and Uzoho to offer an apology on social media.

“This past couple of days have been the worst in my lifetime. I wanted to take my nation to Qatar but rather did the opposite,”

“I know what football means to you all and to myself. I can’t promise not to make mistakes again, but I can promise not to give up until I bring back that smile on your faces.”

He wrote.

It was a message of resilience, persistence and perseverance. And now, only a few months later, Uzoho himself was the one smiling, sitting in Old Trafford’s press room and basking in a brilliant performance, on the biggest night of his career to date, at the home of the club he had supported as a boy. And as he did, you could not help but wonder at sport’s funny way of occasionally granting someone a moment that they have dreamed of and that they fully deserve.

Source: Yahoo News

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