It’s a precarious calculation that Manchester United appears to have made this season. While Jose Mourinho’s team hasn’t exactly given up on the Premier League and gaining a fourth place there in order to re-enter next season’s Champions League, it has gone all-in on the ongoing Europa League – the winner of which also gets a berth to the big tournament.
This means that it can’t afford a single slip, giving itself over to the fickle nature of tournament play.
On Thursday, United almost paid for its gamble, when a raft of chances produced just one goal in the first leg of its semifinal away at Celta. But the Red Devils prevailed 1-0, thanks to Marcus Rashford’s second-half free kick, and will feel good about their chances of making the final, where it would likely face Ajax, a 4-1 winner over Olympique Lyon in the other semifinal on Wednesday.
But had that Rashford goal not materialized, things would have become precarious for the rebuilding English juggernauts.
And Celta threatened just often enough to make United uncomfortable, even if the Red Devils controlled the play and were much the better side on the whole. In the 11th minute, Celta’s Daniel Wass was left completely unmarked as he ran onto a swerving cross at the far post but nodded his header well wide.
United should probably have gone ahead before halftime, but Rashford’s curler was saved handsomely by goalkeeper Sergio. Jesse Lingard twice had a look but came up short of the ball once and was denied another time. And when Paul Pogba slid through Henrikh Mkhitaryan with a splendid pass, the Armenian’s shot was parried by Sergio as well.
On the whole, United gave a well-rounded performance, being mostly comfortable in defense and in charge of the midfield and creating the bulk of the chances. Pogba was masterful, and the absence of injured striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic wasn’t felt much.
Yet it was Celta that somehow mustered the better of the looks in the second half. A diving header by Iago Aspas dinked off his shoulder and wide. Pione Sisto’s dipping shot, courtesy of a deflection, was only just touched over by United goalkeeper Sergio Romero. And when Jonny freed himself up marvelously in United’s box, he simply made the wrong decision in pulling back and trying to find Aspas, rather than going for goal himself.
But it was in the midst of these chances that Rashford won a free kick and whacked it into the far corner in the 67th minute.
And even though Lingard neglected to double the score by smashing his shot wide a while later, the result will ultimately suit United just fine. The Red Devils aren’t yet home dry by any means, but the away goal will count for much when these sides resume their bout next Thursday.
With four league games left to go, United lags fourth-place Manchester City by a point in the Premier League. And two games separate Mourinho’s men from Europe’s consolation trophy. One of them will grant them the prize they’re really after. And Europe might still represent the path of least resistance, no matter the risks.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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