Manchester United escapes into Europa League semis on Marcus Rashford winner

Rashford provided the extra-time heroics for United. (AP Photo)
Rashford provided the extra-time heroics for United. (AP Photo)

If there was one imperative for Manchester United heading into the 2016-17 season, it was Champions League qualification. A Premier League title wasn’t a realistic expectation. One of two domestic cups would have been (and was) nice, but either a top-four finish or a Europa League title was necessary to kick-start the Jose Mourinho era and get United back into the world’s premier club competition.

On Thursday evening in Manchester, the second of those two routes to the Champions League was shrouded in doubt. After a 1-1 draw in Belgium in Leg 1 of their Europa League quarterfinal, Anderlecht had cancelled out Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s opener in the first half of Leg 2, and the tie was all knotted up at 2-2. It dragged on into extra time. Into the second half of extra time. Into squeaky-bum time, as Sir Alex Ferguson once said.

Enter Marcus Rashford.

The 19-year-old forward, who burst onto the scene in this very competition last year, wriggled free in the box and fired United into the semifinals with a 3-2 aggregate victory.

The Red Devils dominated for much of the match, and nearly all of the second half and extra time, but couldn’t quite find a breakthrough. On the very last play of the 90, Zlatan Ibrahimovic crumbled to the Old Trafford turf with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. He was helped off the field. The replays showed his knee had hyperextended on his landing after an aerial duel.

United still couldn’t connect on the final pass in the first 15 minutes of the extra session. But early in the second 15-minute period, Rashford played the role of hero, just as he had in Sunday’s 2-0 Premier League win over Chelsea.

So despite the torment of Thursday’s 120-minute marathon, the quarterfinal victory means both of the potential routes to the Champions League remain viable options for United. That is undoubtedly a good thing. But it also presents a dilemma. The value of one route is almost entirely tied to the possibility of a roadblock arising on the other. Completing both is unnecessary. But completing neither would be disastrous, so United must go for both.

It’s a tricky proposition for Mourinho, who must account for late-season fatigue and the Sunday-Thursday-Sunday grind that the Europa League forces clubs to endure. United’s Premier League fixture list still includes Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham, so Mourinho can’t afford to field a weakened team. The Red Devils find themselves in fifth place in the league, just four points behind fourth-place City, but with a game in hand, so fourth place remains very realistic.

The Europa League route, however, probably is the easier of the two. United will learn of its semifinal opponent in Friday’s draw. Potential foes are Ajax, Celta Vigo and Lyon. United will be favored over any of the three, even after struggling with Anderlecht.

Mourinho made five changes from the team that beat Chelsea on Sunday but retained midfield ace Paul Pogba and Rashford. The team selection signaled attacking intent, with Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Mkhitaryan supporting Ibrahimovic at the top of the formation, and indeed, United did attack. The Red Devils created chance after chance but somehow only found the back of the net once over the first 100 minutes of the match.

It was Pogba who sprung the move that led to the opening goal. He did so with a drop of his shoulder and a quick cut in midfield followed by an otherworldly ball to Rashford down the left. Rashford’s cross was intercepted, but the ball eventually found Mkhitaryan at the edge of the box, with the Armenian playmaker powering a low drive past Anderlecht keeper Ruben Martinez.

Lingard also troubled Martinez in the opening 15 minutes as United, for the most part, bossed the game.

But the hosts almost coughed up their advantage in the 21st minute. Marcos Rojo, having just returned to the field after limping off, labored toward a bouncing ball and couldn’t get there before Frank Acheampong. The Ghanaian winger squeezed passed Rojo and Eric Bailly and was one-on-one with goalkeeper Sergio Romero. Romero got his angles right, stayed big and deflected Acheampong’s shot into the side netting at the near post. Rojo stayed down behind the play and was stretchered off and replaced by Daley Blind.

Leander Dendoncker also had a worryingly clear sight of goal at the edge of the box five minutes later but dragged his shot wide. Anderlecht grew into the game as United failed to further capitalize on its early dominance.

Anderlecht got its breakthrough in the 32nd minute. Youri Tielemans’ deflected shot rattled United’s crossbar, and the rebound eventually fell to the feet of Sofiane Hanni. After a clumsy touch by a teammate, the Anderlecht captain made no mistake with the finish.

Suddenly, it was Anderlecht who looked to be the better team. United’s only outlet was Rashford’s pace down the left. Possession of the ball was shared 50/50 through the first 40 minutes because Anderlecht monopolized it between minutes 25 and 40. Anderlecht finished the opening 45 minutes on top and had to be happy going into halftime level.

The second 45 opened with a flurry a chances. Lukasz Teodorczyk got in behind United’s defense, but Antonio Valencia recovered well to block the Polish striker’s left-footed shot. On the other end, Luke Shaw’s streaking infield run was picked out by Rashford, but Shaw’s square ball across the face of goal slid agonizingly wide of the far post after Lingard could only get the faintest of touches.

Lingard was replaced by Marouane Fellaini near the hour mark, and United immediately began pumping lofted balls into the box for the big Belgian to attack. One was cleared, but only to the top of the box, where Rashford badly skewed his half-volley. Fellaini also had a weak effort comfortably saved.

The game really sprung to life around the 65th minute. It became an end-to-end affair replete with both dangerous attacking play and mistakes. Rashford had the first glorious chance to break the deadlock. Dennis Appiah misplayed an aimless long ball, and the young English forward skipped in behind the Anderlecht defense. He rounded the keeper, but his touch was slightly too heavy and preempted a shot on target.

Ibrahimovic also had a golden opportunity after a ball fell to his feet right on the six-yard box. Many expected the assistant referee to raise his flag for offside, but the flag (correctly) never came. Ibrahimovic’s attempt was saved at point-blank range by a sprawling Martinez.

The match then suddenly became one-sided, with United emerging as the better team. Pogba skied a volley from five yards out off a corner. Ibrahimovic shanked not one but two half-volleys well wide. After the second, he kicked the ground in disgust.

Ibrahimovic then turned into the provider of the last clear chance of the 90 minutes. He flicked a wonderful ball to a rampaging Rashford, but Rashford’s left-footed shot careened wide of the near post from a tight angle.

The 90 minutes ended in the worst of ways for Ibrahimovic. Seconds before the referee’s whistle sounded, he fell to the turf in agony after elevating for a long ball. He appeared to hyperextend his knee on the landing. As the teams regrouped for extra time, Ibrahimovic was helped off the field.

With one substitution remaining, Mourinho had his pick of either Wayne Rooney or Anthony Martial to replace the injured Ibrahimovic, and he opted for Martial. The Frenchman went to the left wing and pushed Rashford to a central striking role.

Rashford and Pogba nearly produced the goal of the season a couple minutes into the first extra session. Rashford’s Rabona cross was met by a bicycling Pogba at the far post, but Pogba’s shot was blocked and might have been headed wide anyway.

The one point of real contention arrived after the 100-minute mark. Fellaini rose above a defender to nod the ball into the path of Pogba, who found the back of the net. But Fellaini had climbed on the back of the defender and was correctly whistled for a foul.

United was well in charge of the game in extra time, but every pass and every shot were inches or feet away from where they needed to be. The teams remained locked at 1-1, 2-2 on aggregate, going into the final 15 minutes.

Rashford then popped up with the winner after Fellaini won a crucial header in the box, and United endured a hectic final 10 minutes to advance to the semifinals.

Rashord’s goal sends United to the Europa League semifinals. (Getty)
Rashord’s goal sends United to the Europa League semifinals. (Getty)

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