LONDON, (SATSports) – Manchester United squeezed into the 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, keeping alive the hope of Europa League glory.
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 – 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 almost instantly after entering for the second half. Yet to reach the final they have to sharpen their act: United’s attack is not currently a prolific one and it may cost them when it truly counts.
Milan manager Stefano Pioli named a team that featured no recognised centre-forward. The Italians welcomed United to the San Siro as Serie A’s second-placed side, having lost to Napoli at the weekend.
Solskjær may have informed his players that the need to score or they were out meant they could and should grab the initiative. Greenwood spurned a golden chance to do just that before a minute had been played, failing to connect with a Dan James cross from the right and illustrating why it has been two months since his last goal.
The 19-year-old shrugged the miss off, though, by peeling off to the right and drilling a ball in, but no teammate took advantage. It pointed to how United had scored only seven times in their previous seven outings, and it soon became clear that Milan’s approach was to sit deep and allow their opponents possession, content to stymie them defensively.
Shaw showed how to break their banked resistance with a quick give-and-go that carved an opening out for Bruno Fernandes. But the usually lethal Portuguese sprayed over, and Solskjær threw up his hands and turned away in disappointment.
United’s domination of the ball was underlined by the fact that Milan’s opening effort at Henderson – a Franck Kessié shot – didn’t arrive until 15 minutes had gone. Again, though, the issue for visitors was shown to be a sluggish mentality when attacking. Harry Maguirepinged a 50-yard pass plum into Shaw, the left-back took it in his stride and suddenly Milan were wide open. Yet when Shaw looked across, both Greenwood and Marcus Rashford had failed to make the lung-bursting run that might have had them in a position to score.
Moments later James appealed for a penalty when Fikayo Tomori took the ball and the Welshman down but the referee, Felix Brych, was not interested. Milan had the air of a team who would pounce when they desired as they grew into the contest. Theo Hernández offered an example when surging from left-back all the way into United’s area before Maguire managed to kick the ball out for a corner. It led to nothing, but it was a warning.
Another came when Simon Kjær, scorer of Milan’s precious away goal, 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 having gone close to playing Kessié through – Victor Lindelöf’s sliding interception was well timed – and Alexis Saelemaekers forcing Henderson into a low-down save, before Rade Krunic fluffed from close to goal. The break was required by Solskjær.
For the second half, Paul Pogba was introduced for Rashford to make his first appearance in six weeks following injury. The Frenchman took up the latter’s left-hand berth with United hunting for the goal that would avert elimination and instead put them through.
It did not take Pogba long to make his statement: three minutes, to be precise. A James shot was deflected across goal to Fred, and when Soualiho Meïté intervened he managed only to give the ball to Pogba. The midfielder’s dummy fooled Gianluigi Donnarummainto committing, and Pogba smashed past the keeper 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. Solskjær’s men were transformed, though. Suddenly thrust had been found.
Fernandes flipped a free-kick in and claimed a corner. It yielded nothing, but United were able to survive Milan’s late siege and book passage into the next round. – Guardian