Football Features

Magical Martial, Lethal Lukaku and more – Five things learned from an epic night of Europa League action

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 23:00, 10 August 2020 | Updated: 9:49, 30 March 2021

In a dramatic night of football, Manchester United and Inter Milan progressed to the Europa League semi-finals.

United beat Copenhagen 1-0 after extra-time whilst Inter outlasted Leverkusen 2-1 with a whole host of VAR drama. What did we learn?

1. Lethal Lukaku Unleashed

Romelu Lukaku has always been a strange case as a footballer. A hulking powerhouse of a body but a style of play that suits a much smaller man. He has incisive finishing technique but his first-touch is often heavier than he was when he first arrived at Inter.

But Antonio Conte has looked past his physique and understood that Lukaku is not a target man, he is a goal poacher. As a result that is how he is deployed; on the shoulder of the last defender, constantly testing them and looking to make a killer run and score goals.

That is exactly what he did to poor Leverkusen in the Europa League quarter-final. From the first minute he was stretching the field, making the Leverkusen defenders work. He was involved in the first goal as his deflected shot bounced out to Nico Barella who then scored. And Lukaku himself got on the scoresheet later with a superb goal that perfectly showed Lukaku’s intelligence, going into a 50-50 battle he knew he’d lose, he rolled his man quickly and held on just long enough so that when he fell, he could shoot at the same time. It was a genius bit of improvisation that took Lucas Hradecky by surprise and doubled Inter’s lead.

That goal made it six straight European games with a goal this season for the Belgian, an incredible record topped perhaps by the fact that had now scored in nine consecutive Europa League appearances (a run going back to his Everton days half a decade ago) which is a record. Lukaku was simply unplayable against Leverkusen, nothing they could do to slow him down, well except be thankful that VAR overturned two calls that would have given Inter penalties and the Belgian a hat-trick.

Lukaku was so dominant he even found time to block a shot from his own player!

Given how many summer tournaments can be taken over by one great goalscorer catching fire, and given how well the Belgian has played so far in said tournament (and this season in general, his strike tonight was his 31st across all competitions in 2019/20) Inter Milan may be able to ride lethal Lukaku all the way to a Europa League win.

2. Karl. Johan. Johnsson.

Manchester United had “one of those nights” against Copenhagen but whilst hat is often a case of poor finishing, tonight it was all about one man in particular: Karl Johan Johnsson. You won’t have heard of him, but you soon will. The 30-year-old Swede has surely earned himself a big money move (likely to the Premier League) with his display tonight.

You’re probably thinking that’s an exaggeration, but Johnsson was truthfully absurd against United. Flying all around his goal stopping United’s endless barrage of shots. He really went full Gandalf in Moria, defying the glowing red devil from getting beyond him until a penalty from the unstoppable Bruno Fernandes. Although even there he managed to distinguish himself, as his presence was so intimidating that Fernandes altered his usual penalty technique, replacing the hop with a more orthodox blasted shot.

Karl Johan Johnsson, we salute you.

3. Inter tried “to Inter”

Inter drawing Leverkusen was always funny because it was two sides who are “famed” for their failures, for their ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Recall how in 2001 Leverkusen were three games away from a Treble, only to losing in the Champions League and DFB-Pokal final and lose the Bundesliga on the final day. Or recall how Inter once lost a Champions League tie to AC Milan. On away goals.

So the question of this tie was always which side is going to mess up, and the answer turned out to be Inter. Yes, Leverkusen lost, but they were simply outplayed by a much better side. And yes, Inter won, but only just. The scoreline was tight even if the performance was not.

And as much as Romelu Lukaku was unplayable, he did score just once, and Inter just twice as a team. They let Leverkusen off the hook so many times, failing to make the most of their dominance. They got away with it in the end, but they will want to be wary of “doing an Inter” in the semis or final. Despite their much improved quality under Antonio Conte, this game showed that old habits die hard.

 

4. The Case Study for Jadon Sancho

Manchester United were taken to extra time by Copenhagen. Now, the Danish side are obviously and demonstrably a formidable defensive outfit, but that is simply not good enough for The Red Devils. It did, however, make plain that United’s haggling with Borussia Dortmund over Jadon Sancho is an exercise in self-harm, because that kid is absolutely essential for Solskjaer’s side.

One thing Copenhagen realised is that United’s wingers aren’t really wingers and always come infield and that United’s full-backs are poor in attack, so cannot adequately fill those spaces left by the wingers. They can stand there, but they won’t do much with the ball. So United are a narrow side and if you funnel everybody into a narrow space then United can only break you down with miracle moments.

Now, sure, United had a few of those miracle moments and in extra-time Anthony Martial repeatedly came achingly close to scoring. And Juan Mata was a lively substitute but the Spaniard is not consistent these days and, again, is someone who plays centrally.

The thing is, Sancho would reduce the need for such moments because he is not only a phenomenal attacking talent but he is a natural winger. You could deploy Sancho on the right-flank and as Copenhagen (or teams like them) would collapse narrow it would leave Sancho 1v1 on the outside, a position from which he could create danger. That in turn stretches defences out and creates space for others.

Basically, Jadon Sancho would be transformative for the Manchester United attack through his positional profile as well as his actual sky-high ability.

5. “Magical” Martial

As United’s former no. 9 was looking unstoppable whilst firing Inter into the Europa League semi-finals, their current no. 9 was looking unstoppable and dragging United to the Europa League semi-finals.

For much of the 90, Martial was just quietly United’s best forward. But in the last minute he went on a long mazy run through the defence only to fail to shoot early and get blocked by a superb block. That run energised him, however, and in extra-time the Frenchman exploded and began blitzing a tiring Copenhagen defence.

Martial looked like he was playing with kids, the difference was that stark. He would pick the ball up in any position, with his head-up, and charge into the maw of the Copenhagen defence and inexplicably thread the needle through the gaps that simply weren’t there. This was liquid Zidane-esque movement from Martial, moving at speeds Copenhagen couldn’t live with. If Olivier Giroud is a go-kart and Karim Benzema a Formula 1 car, then Anthony Martial is an F-22 Raptor. On a whole different level.

Only Johnsson’s miracle prevented Martial from racking up a hat-trick (at the least) but the Frenchman did win the penalty that won the game for United. Robin van Persie was eulogising him in the TV studio, and when you can impress a forward as obscenely talented as Van Persie, you know you’re doing something right. “Too fast, too silky” were the words he used, “I think he’s a world-class player” as well, and you couldn’t argue with that. A fantastic footballer finally finding his finest form.

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