Manchester United make Europa League final after almighty scare

Eric Bailly to miss decider against Ajax after late double sending off at Old Trafford

 Manchester United 1 Celta Vigo 1 (Man Utd win 2-1 on agg)

It is probably typical of José Mourinho, arguably the most prolific trophy machine in the business, that his riposte to Roy Keane’s observation that Manchester United’s first season under new management had been an “embarrassment” by steering his side to another of the game’s showpiece events. Yes, it is not the European final a club with United’s ambitions crave but, post-Ferguson, it still feels like a return to better days and that made this a jubilant night as well as a spiky one.

Mourinho’s team will meet Ajax in the final but they will have to do without Eric Bailly after his late red card during a massed confrontation between the two sets of players. Bailly had cuffed John Guidetti before Facundo Roncaglia, who had scored a few minutes earlier, tried to pick a fight of his own with Paul Pogba and United’s centre half. Bailly and Roncaglia appeared willing to prolong the argument as they made their way off.

Ten against 10, United still had to survive six minutes of stoppage times before their trip to Stockholm on Wednesday week could be confirmed. Ajax will offer a greater threat than the side that is 12th in La Liga but Mourinho does not lose too many finals. He has already won the League Cup and it will be two trophies in his first season. Or to put it another way, as many as Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur have managed between them in the last decade.

Old Trafford certainly felt like a happy place once Marouane Fellaini’s 17th-minute goal had soothed the crowd’s early nerves. Fellaini, a player who has been booed on this ground more times than he would wish to remember, was serenaded from all four stands. Pogba could be seen ball-juggling in midfield and Marcus Rashford showed again he is an ideal wearer of United’s colours. “Football taught by Matt Busby‚” the song goes and Rashford fits in neatly with his speed, penetration and youthful exuberance.

Rashford’s finishing might still be raw sometimes, and there were some moments of carelessness in the second half, but the 19-year-old has responded impressively to the extra responsibility placed upon him now Zlatan Ibrahimovic is unavailable.

His free-kick at Estadio Municipal de Balaídos in the first leg also put United in a position of strength going into this tie, knowing that if they could score once their opponents would need two.

On that basis Fellaini’s goal immediately felt like a decisive blow and, without Ibrahimovic, it was easy to understand why Mourinho had brought in the tallest player in his squad. Sergio Álvarez, the Celta goalkeeper, is one of the smaller members of his profession, standing at just 5ft 10in, and his lack of inches was exposed when Fellaini peeled off to the far post to head in Rashford’s expertly delivered cross.

In the build-up to that goal the crowd could be heard expressing their displeasure that Matteo Darmian, who looked vulnerable at times against Iago Aspas, had passed the ball backwards, in keeping with a nervous start from the home team.

Celta had started the game confidently and, to begin with, United were not passing the ball with the same authority. Eduardo Berizzo’s team looked more threatening than in any part of the first leg and by half-time could reflect on at least two presentable opportunities that would have given the night a different complexion.

Aspas, barely recognisable from his unsatisfactory time at Liverpool, created the first chance of the night and his diagonal, left-foot shot was curling towards the top corner until Sergio Romero, deputising for David de Gea, stretched out a glove to turn the ball away for a corner. Daniel Wass headed another chance wide late in the first half and overall Celta played with a sense of adventure that made it easier to understand how they had scored in all their previous away ties.

For United to lose their winning position, however, would have required a full-on meltdown and Romero has grown in confidence during his run in this competition. It would still represent a gamble on Mourinho’s part to leave De Gea out of the final but his replacement has proved he can be trusted.

Daley Blind’s form might also be a pleasant surprise to Mourinho bearing in mind the manager’s previous reservations about using the Dutchman in central defence. Blind is another one who can feel he deserves his place in the final and, on this evidence, nobody can argue with the decision to keep Phil Jones and Chris Smalling on the bench.

Guidetti, once of Manchester City, might have improved Celta’s chances with a quarter of an hour to go but his header was poor. Roncaglia then equalised with a header of his own before the late drama.

(Guardian service)

 

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