Football Features

“He’s not a virus, he’s the vaccine” – Super-sub Pogba saves the day as Manchester United beat AC Milan to advance

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:20, 18 March 2021

In a game of two halves, Manchester United beat AC Milan 0-1 in San Siro to qualify for the Europa League quarter-finals.

The Red Devils endured a horrible first-half to win it in the second, making their way into their 27th European quarter-final. The match was lit up by one superstar in particular.

The first-half of this match was incredibly dull. Milan were trying to have an impact but were being rebuffed by a solid United rearguard while the Red Devils were, one break aside, an absolute mess going forward.

Time and time again they’d try and conjure something and besides the time when Dan James was sent through and had an easy pass to give Mason Greenwood a 1-v-1 only to go it alone and be dispossessed; they didn’t ever look like hurting Milan.

Something had to be done, and so at half-time Paul Pogba came on for Marcus Rashford.

The striker had looked well off the pace, possibly carrying an injury, but regardless Pogba came on and played left-wing. And instantly United were playing a couple of gears higher than they had been.

Their players had more drive to push high and press, and through this determination they took the lead. When Dan James’ shot was deflected wide, Paul Pogba made a big impact by turning it back into the box towards Fred. The Brazilian’s flick was blocked too but he kept on fighting and deflected the ball back to Pogba.

The Frenchman took a touch, feinted to shoot and then scooped the ball into the net. A gorgeous goal, a stupendous bit of improvisation and an instant impact to make plain just how important he still is to Manchester United.

The second-half performance built off that, with United looking much more coherent and competent thanks firstly to Pogba but also everyone else playing so much better. And that was the key to tonight’s win but will also be the key to any success United have this season: the ability of their star players to lift the team.

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Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba are the star turns at Manchester United. Unquestionably talented and unappreciated for their consistency. Rashford obviously was hurt today and fatigue has been sapping Fernandes’ excellence of late, and with Pogba absent, The Red Devils have looked listless.

Whether the nature of the way Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has built his side, or his own failure to instill a functioning system of play, is a question for another day. What is certain is that Paul Pogba makes Manchester United several orders of magnitude better when he’s on the field. Give him a new contract to ensure many more years of greatness at Old Trafford.

The Frenchman’s own individual qualities are a matter of public record, but what is often overlooked is how much he can lift his team-mates. While not on Fernandes’ messianic levels, Pogba is a supreme leader and the confidence he transmits effects all areas of the pitch.

Luke Shaw and Dan James suddenly ran with a lot more purpose. Fred went from an anonymous passenger to a whirling dervish of defensive disruption, stifling so many Milan attacks. Even Dean Henderson had more confidence with Pogba around, making an incredible point-blank save from Zlatan Ibrahimovic when last week he let a softer header from Simon Kjaer creep in.

So United are through, and that’s great, but the key for the rest of the season is that Paul Pogba remains fit. After all their exertions lately, Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford are beginning to slow down (and Rashford is clearly carrying an injury) and while they can still have an impact, they can’t really carry the team in the same way that they have been lately.

“We know we need to be better than tonight,” said Luke Shaw after the match. And if Paul Pogba stays fit they are very likely to do just that. An instant lift like tonight is great, but if Pogba can sustain this influence then Manchester United can start to think seriously about winning a trophy this season. Despite what some people have said about him, Pogba is not a virus, he’s the vaccine to make United healthy again.