Friday, 16 April 2021

United finish the job and roll on to Roma


Manchester United traditionally don't do straightforward. It's a rite of passage - almost a contractual obligation - to put supporters through the entire gamut of emotions for 90 minutes every week. 
When most people would take the motorway at 70mph, United choose the scenic route of the back country road at 20mph to reach their eventual destination.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Reds have had a nightmare sequence of cup draws - thwarted by the best team in that particular round at every turn. Apart from Watford, we played a top half Premier League team at each stage of the FA Cup until our eventual elimination at the hands of Leicester. The Champions League group of death alongside PSG and Leipzig and Everton and City in successive rounds of the Carabao Cup. Even having dropped into the second tier Europa League, Real Sociedad and Milan hardly represented inferior opposition. 

Consider all of this, and it was strangely soothing to see United get through a European quarter-final with a bit to spare. Granada were the dream draw, the tie everyone wanted, and United lived up to their billing as favourites with a confident, professional and accomplished performance against Spain's eighth best side. The Reds never needed to get out of second gear and could easily have clicked up a level if it was needed. As European quarter-finals go, this was surely the easiest most of us can remember - as United writer Samuel Luckhurst alluded to at full-time. 

4-0 on aggregate, the Reds could have had a few more if we fancied it. Even before Edinson Cavani's early goal put us ahead at Old Trafford and 3-0 up in the tie to put the result beyond any lingering doubt, United had taken a stroll down easy street. 

It was nice to have a two-legged cup tie in the latter stages of a competition and not to suffer palpitations every few minutes. The only time United ever looked in trouble was when the heavy handed visitors dished out a liberal helping of foul play. Quite how they ended with a full compliment of players will forever remain a mystery. You felt Granada could have played until next season's quarter-finals and still not score. United and Solskjaer were without four key men, three of them - captain Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw and Scott McTominay through suspension - and the rested Marcus Rashford but yet still won in second gear and with plenty to spare.

Not many managers can afford to leave out four of their best players for a European quarter-final but yet still win in second gear with a bit to spare. As the season's frantic run-in continues at breakneck speed, those players are rested up after a rare night off as Burnley head across Lancashire to Old Trafford on Sunday. Fatigue and tired legs cost us during last season's denouement but our strength in depth is much improved this time around so you'd hope we avoid a repeat. There couldn't have been a better tie for Axel Tuanzebe to make his first start since January with the young defender one of United's best individual performers. 

Another semi-final then, the fifth in two seasons for Solskjaer to attempt to find a formula to lift his personal curse. No matter what you made of Solskjaer's divisive comments the other week about trophies only massaging egos, winning silverware - any silverware - will have to matter at some point. There can have been few less daring passages en route to United's third Europa League last four tie and a second in succession. 

You won't need us to tell you how the previous four semi finas ended with the heartache of falling at the penultimate hurdle. Man City in the League Cup (twice), Chelsea in the FA Cup and, most painfully of all, the Europa League semi final KO at the hands of Sevilla in Germany in August - a tie United dominated and should have won but we were ultimately punished for profligacy. As the United boss said afterwards, the disappointment of that night still lingers and has provided the team with an additional dollop of motivation to go one better this time around. In Solskjaer's defence, he can claim to have not always had the rub of the green when it comes to the big moments in the biggest games. 

Roma, the team from Italy's Eternal City, will lie in wait with Paulo Fonseca's side to face United in the last four having edged past Ajax 3-2 on aggregate after their 1-1 draw in Italy followed an impressive 2-1 away victory in the Dutch capital, a minor shock to set up the first meeting between the two clubs for 14 years. 
This time though, it's a two legged semi final against an opponent that present our best chance so far of reaching that elusive first showpiece under Solskjaer. It won't be anywhere near as simple against the Serie A side as it was against Granada - and nor can we expect it to be. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Chris Smalling and Edin Dzeko et al will have other ideas, of course, but Solskjaer's United - for probably the first time under the Norwegian - head into a semi final as strong favourites to progress. Dangerous and talented they may be, but with respect to I Giallarossi, Chelsea and Manchester City they certainly aren't. 

This never really felt like a quarter-final with the second leg played out in the manner of a glorified training game, but United will need to move up through those gears in the next round if Solskjaer's dreams of silverware with his boyhood club are - finally - to come to fruition. 

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