Jose Mourinho’s self-confessed gamble to prioritise the Europa League over the Premier League looks like being a success, after Marcus Rashford’s stunning free-kick gave Manchester United a vital first-leg lead in the semi-final against Celta Vigo, putting them within touching distance of both a trophy and a place at Europe’s top table for 2018.
Currently fifth in the Premier League, Mourinho’s decision to concentrate on a competition which guarantees a place in the Champions League to the team which wins the final in Stockholm in three weeks’ time was eye-raising, but well-calculated.
United begin a four-game domestic run-in with a tough trip to Arsenal on Sunday and are sitting a point behind Manchester City and four behind Liverpool in the table. So, when you consider they have already looked tired in recent matches, have suffered a terrible run of injuries and been held to a string of frustrating draws at Old Trafford, it’s easy to see why a semi-final in Spain followed by a final against Lyon or more likely Ajax (who lead 4-1 from the first leg of their last-four tie) looked a better route into Europe.
There is still a big job to do at Old Trafford next Thursday, of course — and after that in Sweden should they reach the final — but Rashford’s superb 67th minute free-kick, his 11th goal of an increasingly impressive season, leaves United as strong favourites to win the Europa League and also eases pressure on their difficult domestic run-in, which also includes a trip to Tottenham Hotspur.
The only fly in the ointment was Rashford limping off late on — though the injury did not look serious — and a frustrating night for substitute Ashley Young who also limped off before the final whistle having played for just 10 minutes.
Mourinho does have plenty of positives to consider, too. He brought back Paul Pogba in the Estadio Balaidos — and he played well — but he also kept some powder dry for the Emirates this weekend, by naming a highly-experienced bench that included Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney, and fit-again Juan Mata and Chris Smalling.
It was an attacking line-up, nevertheless, and Mourinho underlined the fact as he described his tactics pre-match: “I want to see confidence, to see the team playing to win. I want us to fight for a result that will allow us to go at them in the second leg and reach the final.”
United did just that against a Celta Vigo side with a reputation of creating upsets. In fact, while the Galician side are currently 11th in La Liga they have beaten Barcelona at home 4-3 this season and knocked Real Madrid out of the Copa del Rey. To their credit, Mourinho’s side began the game strongly, with Pogba quickly back into his stride and Rashford’s pace causing problems in an entertaining opening which was just the prelude to an impressive all-round display.
Rashford had the first real chance for the visitors, forcing Sergio Alvarez into a spectacular one-handed save, before Mkhitaryan suffered a similar fate when put through by Pogba and then Lingard wasted an excellent chance before the half-time break.
That, of course, has been the United curse all season, dominating so many games without finding the killer touch to finish off opponents.
Not that Celta Vigo, managed by highly-rated Argentine Eduardo Berizzo, can be described as European cannon fodder. Roared on by a noisy home crowd they gave as good as they got early on and also had an excellent first-half chance when Daniel Wass headed narrowly wide when he should have done better.
Sergio Romero, again chosen ahead of David de Gea, also had to make a stunning stop from Phone Sisto’s effort after the break, but United’s superiority was evident in almost every facet of play and they took the lead when Daley Blind faked to take a free-kick left-footed on the edge of the Celta box, and Rashford swept home right-footed instead with an exquisite finish.
The 19-year-old, after a slow start to the season, is now starting to look the real deal and was deservedly given a standing ovation by United fans when substituted after 80 minutes for Anthony Martial. His goal means United have scored in their last six away games in the Europa League and the England international was by no means the only hero, because Mourinho should also be encouraged by strong defensive display.
Perhaps the only criticism which could be levelled at United is that they should have scored more — a familiar refrain — and their recent poor record at Old Trafford means nothing is yet decided in this tie, despite a crucial away goal and a strong victory, vindicating Mourinho’s approach to the game. They are, however, big favourites.
Sergio 7, Hugo Mallo 6 (Beauvue 90), Cabral 6, Roncaglia 6, Jonny 6, Wass 7 (Jozabed 74; 6), Radoja 6, Hernandez 6, Aspas 7, Guidetti 6, Sisto 7. Subs: Villar, Fontas, Marcelo Diaz, Bongonda, Sergi Gomez.
Romero 7, Valencia 7, Bailly 7, Blind 7, Darmian 6, Herrera 7, Fellaini 6, Lingard 6, Pogba 8, Mkhitaryan 7 (Young 78; 5; Smalling 89) Rashford 9 (Martial 80; 6). Subs: de Gea, Mata, Rooney, Carrick.
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