Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may think trophies sometimes act as nothing more than an ego trip for his managerial rivals, but he will feel fairly good about himself if this impressive win against Milan at San Siro leads to lifting his first piece of silverware as Manchester United manager in Gdansk come May.
Having conceded a late away goal to Simon Kjaer in last Thursday’s first leg at Old Trafford, United had everything to do in order to reach the Europa League quarter-finals. Through the returning Paul Pogba, they did, finding the goal they required to eliminate Milan’s slender advantage, establish one of their own and record a famous victory.
Pogba’s exquisite finish, minutes after coming on as a half-time substitute for his first appearance in six weeks, made the difference. But then so too did the excellent Victor Lindelof, whose last-ditch defending dug his side out of the few holes they found themselves in. Dean Henderson’s reputation continues to grow too, after a fine save to deny Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Solskjaer played down the importance of this competition and it is true that, with a top-four Premier League finish and Champions League qualification appearing safe, there is no longer millions of pounds in broadcasting income to riding on this run. There is glory, though, and the only shame is that this would have been a memorable European night for the United support were they allowed to travel.
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United will enter Friday’s draw as favourites to progress to the final and win outright. Arsenal, Roma, Ajax and others will have something to say about that and may even face Solskjaer’s side in the quarter-finals, judging by his luck with cup draws. Yet on this evidence, United are the strongest team left in the competition and perhaps the only ones who could be confident of turning a tie like this around.
Solskjaer named an unchanged line-up from Sunday’s win over West Ham, even though Pogba was available again following a six-week lay-off with a thigh injury. David de Gea was back too but Dean Henderson retained his place in goal despite criticism of his part in Kjaer’s late first-leg equaliser.
United knew from the first whistle they had to score. The problem? Milan knew that too. Stefan Pioli’s side sat relatively deep in the early stages but the adventurous nature of marauding left-back Theo Hernandez offered space for United to exploit. Two early low crosses from that flank – one by Daniel James, the other Mason Greenwood – went begging. A connection on either would have produced a clear-cut chance.
The same two players should then have combined for United’s most promising attack of the half when Milan’s backline was momentarily caught high up the pitch. James broke away with Greenwood in support but ignored the calls to set up a clear one-on-one to his left, instead bearing right, running deep into the penalty area and ultimately down a blind alley. As Fikayo Tomori stepped in to steal the ball away, Greenwood cut a figure of frustration.
Greenwood was guilty of similar at a crucial moment during the Champions League exit to RB Leipzig back in December, failing to pick out a clean-through Marcus Rashford. United suffered for that moment of selfishness and as Milan’s presence grew through the first half, it was clear that they could be made to suffer again.
One of Bruno Fernandes’ several wayward first-half passes forced Victor Lindelof to make a perfectly-timed sliding challenge in his own penalty area and dispossess Franck Kessie while the Milan midfielder was bearing down on goal. Henderson then parried an Alexis Saelemaekers attempt and Rade Krunic fired wide on the stroke of half time. Milan finished the stronger of the two sides.
Something had to change. If he had 45 minutes in his legs, it had to be Pogba. Rashford was replaced and within two minutes, United had their precious goal.
It began as a game of pinball inside the penalty area but ended a truly majestic finish. Nobody appeared to want possession of James’ deflected cross to the far post. Pogba initially cut the ball back inside the six-yard box to Fred, only for him to lose it to Soualiho Meite, then tenaciously whipped it away from Meite’s feet again.
It broke once more for Pogba and this time, he went alone. After a brief pause to put his foot on the ball, a feint deceived Gianluigi Donnarumma, allowing Pogba to lift the ball around the Milan goalkeeper, inside the near post and into the roof of the net.
Milan, suddenly, were the ones turning to their bench. Pogba’s good friend Ibrahimovic finally made an appearance against this former club, 155 minutes into this tie, and quickly forced Henderson into a fine, strong, one-handed save at close range. Minutes earlier, Lindelof’s instinctive block had denied Kessie. As Milan grew impatient, United remained resolute. They move into the last eight.Photo Credit: Getty