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Bruno steals the day for lucky Ole

Fernandes' 100th-minute penalty an act of larceny as plucky Albion are left stunned

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Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes celebrates scoring his side's third goal of the game from the penalty spot during the Premier League match at the AMEX Stadium, Brighton. Photo: PA

Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes celebrates scoring his side's third goal of the game from the penalty spot during the Premier League match at the AMEX Stadium, Brighton. Photo: PA

PA

Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes celebrates scoring his side's third goal of the game from the penalty spot during the Premier League match at the AMEX Stadium, Brighton. Photo: PA

BRUNO Fernandes appeared as though assigned by the heavens to rescue Old Gunnar Solskjaer from the rising chorus accusing him of hosting a played-out party.

An escape, beside which the most audacious Alcatraz or Shawshank breakout seems ho-hum, may have diverted a lynch mob from the Manchester United manager's door.

Ole should put down the prayer mat after a game that built to a remarkable crescendo, delivering his team three points that amounted to nothing so much as an affront to logic.

The conclusion was a visceral assault on the senses, a wild, sensory overload, surely the craziest finale involving United since Solskjaer was elevated to injury-time Champions League hero on an historic Nou Camp night 21 years ago.

Fernandes' 100th-minute penalty winner came after referee Chris Kavanagh had blown the final whistle - only for VAR to highlight a Neal Maupay handball in what had appeared to be the game's final act.

The Portuguese international's 17th consecutive successful spot-kick, a run dating back to 2016, compelled even Solskjaer to confess that his team had committed an act of larceny.

"We got away with one," he sighed, colour flowing back into features drained a ghostly grey over two hours when he had largely ceased to be a manager in control of his own destiny.

This was another deeply defective performance, one that can only fuel a growing conviction that Solskjaer is not the figure to make real the Stretford End's fantasies.

Nothing about United's overall performance will have Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola looking over their shoulder with an expression of even remote concern.

For much of this extraordinary afternoon, with Brighton's menace in contrast to United's desperate lunges, Solskjaer seemed a coach on the brink of imminent impeachment.

Since last week's clueless capitulation to Crystal Palace, he has faced a charge that he is impotent to avert the sharp decline of empire at Old Trafford.

That suspicion only gained fresh momentum here as Brighton deservedly took the lead, hit the woodwork five times and saw a penalty, awarded for Paul Pogba's challenge on Ireland's Aaron Connolly, overturned by VAR.

Brighton won so many of the statistical battles - 14-5 in attempts on goal, 7-1 in corners, 31-13 in crosses - and were, infinitely, the more impressive force.

Yet, even an injury-time equaliser was insufficient to provide them with a lasting foothold in a wacky, compelling contest.

Solskjaer had the manic air of a man who had been strapped to the electric chair, yet who was now somehow still breathing and free to wonder off into the night.

"You can't sum it up at all. It's just emotions, drama.

"When they equalised, you thought, that's two points lost. Or, maybe, one point was what we deserved. I don't think we deserved more on the run of play.

"But the character the players showed deserved more, as in the reaction to the first goal, when we started playing, and the reaction to the second goal as well. We went straight up and created a corner from which the penalty came.

"That's a big thing for us compared to last season. We had too many draws.

"We were the team that had least defeats apart from Liverpool. But we had too many draws. So that's a big plus for us."

With the busy Connolly, Maupay and Tariq Lamptey once again exposing United's pedestrian defence, Solskjaer would have been justified in feeling a chill as frigid as a December wind howling across the fjords of his native land.

Leandro Trossard, alone, sent three shots thudding against the frame of the goal and, in the 93rd minute, had a point-blank, toe-poke repelled by David De Gea.

But, while Pogba saw another game pass him by, United at least did not capitulate as they had against Palace a week earlier.

Under pressure from Harry Maguire from a menacing Fernandes free, Lewis Dunk diverted the ball into his own net to cancel out Maupay's wonderfully impudent Panenka penalty.

A moment of individual genius from Marcus Rashford, his high-paced slalom leaving Ben White with twisted blood, a thunderous shot deflecting off Dunk en route to goal, gave United a second-half lead they scarcely deserved.

The 20-time English champions, despite spending (squandering) one billion euro in the post-Alex Ferguson era, often resemble an institution in an ungovernable tailspin.

A sizeable constituency of Stretford End ultras fear that so long as their current board and structures survive, theirs is, if not a football club saddled with a death wish, then one with a slender grasp of the culture moulded by Fergie.

The panic which enveloped Old Trafford's corridors of power after a dismal opening-day loss to Palace had given way to anger and recrimination before kick-off yesterday in what was, remember, just their second league game of the season.

If that seemed as premature an over-reaction as a Christmas tree salesman growing hysterical about poor November sales, still there are authentic concerns.

While the pursuit of Jordan Sancho has dominated United's horizon, all the evidence is that the most urgent requirement is for a centre-back who would not finish a distant third in the race between the hare and the tortoise.

When Solly March capped a period of sustained Brighton pressure with an equaliser deep into injury-time, it was easy to imagine the fury from the away end had the Am-Ex Stadium not been deserted.

But then they somehow found a route out of Alcatraz.

United forced a corner, Maguire's header was cleared off the line by March, the final whistle sounded ... only for Chris Kavanagh to receive an urgent bulletin from VAR official Simon Hooper.

Game back on and, with 99.43 on the clock, Fernandes held his nerve.

And the binds strapping Solskjaer to the electric chair were loosened just a nanosecond before the killing sparks arrived.