Football News

Man Utd put one foot in Europa League quarter-finals after rebounding in style following their Anfield mauling

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 22:00, 9 March 2023

Erik ten Hag named an unchanged Manchester United side for tonight’s Europa League last 16 first-leg meeting against Real Betis at Old Trafford which certainly raised a few eyebrows.

Only a few days prior the Red Devils were humiliated 7-0 at Anfield by Liverpool, the club’s worst-ever Premier League loss and that shocking loss came one week after Ten Hag lifted his first piece of silverware as Man Utd boss, their EFL Cup success over Newcastle ended United’s six-year trophy drought.

Today was an opportunity for those scorned players to redeem themselves in front of a partisan audience or at the very least show that heavy beating was nothing more than an aberration. The method to Ten Hag’s ‘madness’, which really lasted for 45 minutes with Diogo Dalot hooked off at half-time, turned out to be successful as they ran out 4-1 winners.

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Once again Man Utd was indebted to Marcus Rashford to start the ball rolling, United’s ‘number 10’ broke the deadlock in the sixth minute with a rasping shot that flew through Claudio Bravo, it was his fifth Europa League goal (making him the competitions leading scorer) and 18th effort across 22 appearances since returning from the World Cup, such is Rashford’s newfound status he’s only blanked in five games. Even more illustrative comes the fact United have scored 12 goals from fast break situations this season, the most of any team from Europe’s top five leagues in all competitions; six of them have been scored by Rashford (including their first goal tonight), also the most of any player in Europe.

But those defensive inefficiencies reared its ugly head when Ayoze Pérez, on loan from Leicester City, drew the game level. His equaliser was the sixth goal Real Betis had netted in the last 15 minutes of the first half, which is more than any other team in the Europa League this season. Pérez’s goal, which happened to be Real Betis’ first shot on target, was also his first in Betis’ famous green and white jersey. The one-time Newcastle forward had now been involved in three goals in his last two appearances against Man Utd, providing two assists for Leicester in a 4-2 win in the Premier League in October 2021, after failing to score or assist in his first 12 such games against them.

While in front with a clean sheet, Wout Weghorst attempted three shots on goal, more than any other player on either team, his inability to finish was met with groans from the Stretford End faithful. Pérez, though, could have given Betis a half-time lead against the run of play. A 44th-minute effort — following a momentary lapse of concentration by David de Gea — struck the woodwork.

The much-maligned Spanish goalkeeper passed straight to Juanmi which undoubtedly reaffirmed the belief of many that De Gea’s ability with the ball at his feet isn’t up to Ten Hag’s standards. Weghorst’s lackadaisicalness was matched by Antony who frustratingly gave possession away, but the former Ajax man scored another peach of a goal, cutting onto his left foot he curls the ball perfectly into the far corner. Fernandes assisted Antony before heading in United’s third minutes later.

It was another fast start after the break. No team has scored more Europa League goals in the opening 15 minutes of the second half than Man Utd (six) with only Kevin De Bruyne and James Ward-Prowse (both four) having scored more goals from outside the penalty area in all competitions among Premier League players this season than Antony (three). Fernandes nodded home a Luke Shaw cross, the England international has now registered five assists in all competitions for Man Utd this season, only in 2020/21 (6) has the former Southampton academy graduate provided more in a single campaign for the 20-time English champions.

Having been scathingly criticised following the Liverpool debacle, with some arguing he should have the captaincy taken away from him, this went some way from Fernandes to make amends for his performance. Tonight was a reminder of how integral the Portuguese playmaker is to United’s chances of success. His assist for Antony was the 10th he’s registered this season in all competitions, only Kevin De Bruyne (17) and Mohamed Salah (11) sit above him when it comes to Premier League players.

Such was this being United’s night Weghorst even got on the scoresheet. At the umpteenth time of asking Man Utd’s non-scoring marksman netted his second for the club since joining on a temporary basis during this past winter transfer window. This meant so much to the Dutchman that he was on verge of tears.

“It showed great character tonight,” Paul Scholes reflected on BT Sports afterwards. “They started the game really well but had a little sticky spell just before half-time. Second half, I thought they were fantastic, with Bruno Fernandes dictating play in the centre of the pitch.”

Man Utd now has one foot in the quarter-finals, and barring an unfortunate collapse, Ten Hag’s side is on course to add more silverware.