Manchester United squeezed into the Europa League quarter-finals the hard way: coming to Milan and earning the victory required. In doing so, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men won their biggest game of the campaign.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, once of United, was brought on for the latter stages. As the minutes ebbed away he rose above Luke Shaw to head strongly but Dean Henderson tipped over.
By the close United had survived – the excellent Shaw’s late intervention as Alexis Saelemaekers lurked was indicative of a nervy finish – with Paul Pogba the tie-winning hero, scoring the vital goal shortly after entering for the second half. However they have to sharpen their act: United’s attack is not currently a prolific one and it may cost them when it truly counts.
A delighted Solskjær said: “When you win away from home in a stadium like this against a team like this you’re very happy. You give yourself a chance when you keep a clean sheet.
“Dean Henderson made a fantastic save towards the end and I’m very pleased with everyone’s defending. We know the back six, with the likes of Scott McTominay and Fred, always give everything.” This was a sixth clean sheet in seven games.
In Friday’s draw United can be paired with one of Arsenal, Dinamo Zagreb, Granada, Roma, Slavia Prague, Villarreal or Ajax for a quarter-final to be contested on the 8 and 15 April. “Of course we want to go all the way,” the manager said. “It was hard to lose last season in the semi-final.”
Of the match-winner Pogba, Solskjær said: “We’ve missed Paul. He’s been out for almost two months and any team would miss a player like Paul Pogba. He is very important for us and he’s going to give us a big boost. He makes a very, very big difference.”
Solskjær knew his side needed to score and Greenwood spurned a golden chance to do just that before a minute had been played, failing to connect with a Daniel James cross from the right and illustrating why it has been two months since his last goal.
It was clear that Milan’s approach was to sit deep and allow their opponents possession, content to stymie them defensively. Shaw showed how to break banked resistance with a quick give-and-go that carved an opening out for Bruno Fernandes, but the Portuguese playmaker cleared the bar.
This pointed to a sluggish mentality in attack. Harry Maguire pinged a 50-yard pass plum into Shaw, who took it in his stride and suddenly Milan were wide open. Yet when the left-back looked across, both Greenwood and Marcus Rashford had failed to make the lung-busting run that would have placed them in a scoring position.
Milan had the air of a team who would pounce when they desired as they grew into the contest. Theo Hernández offered an warning when surging from left-back all the way into United’s area before Maguire managed to kick the ball out.
Another came when Simon Kjær was suddenly charging at the ball, with Henderson scrambling to gather. By now Milan were the established force, controlling possession and pinning United back. The half ended with Samu Castillejo going close to playing Franck Kessié through – Victor Lindelöf’s sliding interception was well timed – and Saelemaekers forcing Henderson into a low-down save, before Rade Krunic fluffed from close range. The break was required by Solskjær.
For the second half, Pogba was introduced for Rashford – “he had a twinge,” Solskjær said – to make a first appearance in six weeks. The Frenchman took up Rashford’s left-hand berth and needed just three minutes to make his statement. A James shot was deflected across to Fred, and when Soualiho Meïté intervened he managed only to give the ball to Pogba. The midfielder’s dummy fooled Gianluigi Donnarumma into committing, and he smashed past the goalkeeper into the roof of the net.
Solskjær was delighted but immediately United suffered a scare: Saelemaekers had Henderson saving, then Shaw gave the rebound to Fred in the danger area before the threat ended via a fortunate deflection.
United managed to find some welcome extra thrust. Fernandes flipped a free-kick in and claimed a corner. It yielded nothing, but his side were able to survive Milan’s late siege and secure passage to the next round.
Next up are Leicester in the FA Cup. “We are looking forward to Sunday, it’s another quarter-final, so we will just dust ourselves down and go again,” Solskjær said.