In a gritty night of football, Manchester United came from behind to beat LASK 2-1 at Old Trafford.
The Red Devils’ passage into the quarter-finals was basically assured before a ball had been kicked thanks to their 0-5 win away from home in the first-leg (the club’s last game before Covid-19 forced football into a hiatus), so there was never anything riding on this game.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took full advantage of this fact by almost fully rotating his team. Only Harry Maguire and Brandon Williams remained from the final day’s XI and you’d imagine if Phil Jones or Axel Tuanzebe were fit even Maguire would have been given a rest.
The thing is, rather than take their chance to play their way into the manager’s plans for the three-match 11 day sprint to come, United’s back-ups instead laboured to a stodgy 2-1 win. The result did much to highlight the problem that the Red Devils will face not only in the days to come but also next season: their squad is woefully short of quality.
Through some decent transfer activity and a few youngsters coming through, Man Utd’s first team is actually brimming with quality. It is perhaps lacking in one or two areas, but it’s a spectacular starting XI. However once you peer beyond that things do get quite grim.
United’s back-up striker is Odion Ighalo, a worker but nothing special. Tonight he was anonymous as a force in terms of hold-up play and threatening goal himself. Their back-up winger is Daniel James, an incredibly useful but very limited player useful only in specific situations. Tonight, with LASK not pushing high up the field the Welshman couldn’t conjure anything up.
McTominay is a poor substitute for Paul Pogba, who did eventually come on (more on that in a second) and Jesse Lingard is no Bruno Fernandes. Tim Fosu-Mensah is a poor stand-in for Aaron Wan-Bissaka and comparing Sergio Romero to David de Gea… well, anyway, moving on.
Much of this is the XI that put LASK to the sword in the first-leg, but there was one crucial difference between then and tonight, and that is Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese playmaker started that night and as a result United’s play fizzed and crackled with so much energy and drive. Fernandes’ presence energised Juan Mata, and though the Spaniard is nowhere near his peak he is still capable of sensational performances and the match in March was one of those.
However without Fernandes, Mata looked all at sea. A few nice passes, sure, including the assist for Jesse Lingard’s equaliser, but nothing consistent until Paul Pogba came on to add a bit of order to the United midfield. With the Frenchman pulling the strings, United stepped their game-up. Then when Anthony Martial came on, suddenly Mata came alive, and so followed United.
Jesse Lingard has scored in back-to-back games for Man Utd for the first time since December 2018.
Back among the goals. ⚽️ pic.twitter.com/9VkT131Py3
With the extra quality on the field, the last 10 minutes saw United cruise to victory and even pick up a winner as Mata set Martial up for a lovely goal. In fact, Mata should have notched a hat-trick of assists when Martial missed after being played through at the death.
So United are through, great. The majority of their first XI got a rest, great. But their squad players proved that they are no competition at all. Beyond Sergio Romero (which won’t happen) not one player made a case for starting in the next round against Copenhagen.
Jesse Lingard scored in his second-straight appearance and looked bright, but did he really do enough to convince Solskjaer he can make the difference? Was he really penetrative and creative enough? A few nice flicks but he was largely toothless against a mediocre LASK side unless he was literally put clean through on goal with no defender anywhere near him, and even then he needed a deflection to score.
All of this means that if Manchester United hit the wall later in the competition (unlikely against Copenhagen but if the Red Devils win they will face a real battle against Sevilla or Wolves or Olympiakos) they won’t be able to turn to their bench to realistically help them out. Just as in the Premier League run-in, it’s going to be all on their starters, and Solskjaer just has to hope they don’t run out of steam.
The rest of the night’s Europa League results:
- Copenhagen 3-0 Istanbul Basaksehir (3-1 agg.): The Danish side pulled off an incredible second-leg turnaround against Istanbul. Copenhagen struck early in the first-half, doubled their lead early in the second from the penalty spot and added a stunning third from Rasmus Falk to seal their passage into the quarter-finals where they will face Manchester United.
- Shakhtar Donetsk 3-0 Wolfsburg (5-1 agg.): Shakhtar and Wolfsburg slogged it out in Kyiv with the hosts edging proceedings both sides were reduced to 10-men. In the end the Ukrainian side blitzed their opponents late with three goals in four minutes at the end of the game to confirm their passage to the quarter-finals.
- Inter Milan 2-0 Getafe: The Spanish side came out swinging and had the better of things for much of the first-half, however Romelu Lukaku scored a superb strike against the run of play. Inter dominated in the second period but were lucky when Jaime Mata skewed a penalty wide. Christian Eriksen settled things late on to put Inter into the quarters.