It is not quite 7-1 but it’ll certainly do. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will travel to the Stadio Olimpico next week confident of avoiding a fifth consecutive semi-final exit as manager of Manchester United after a thumping 6-2 win over Roma, reminiscent of that emphatic victory against the same opposition under Sir Alex Ferguson all those years ago.
This was not as convincing as the United performance on that famous Champions League quarter-final in 2007. For starters, Solskjaer’s side went in at half time trailing 2-1 and that only tells part of the story. This was a silly game, filled with mistakes, mishaps and madcap passages of play but the chaos was turned in United’s favour by brilliant individual displays by Edinson Cavani and Bruno Fernandes.
Both finished with two goals and two assists to their name, while Cavani also won a soft penalty under a challenge from the returning Chris Smalling. Paul Pogba and Mason Greenwood got in on the act with a goal apiece. But you did not need to bother keeping count to know that United are well-placed to reach the Gdansk final. The grin on Solskjaer’s face said it all.
With Champions League qualification all but secure, this competition can now take priority and Solskjaer named a strong line-up. Only Mason Greenwood could really complain about his omission, missing out as Pogba started wide on the left, with a no frills pairing of Fred and Scott McTominay in midfield. That decision paid early dividends.
Pogba’s silk and steel cutting inside from that flank set up the sublime opening goal, one of the finest that United have scored under Solskjaer. On his first return to Old Trafford, Smalling was turned then held at arm’s length as Pogba slipped the ball into Cavani’s feet. A majestic first-time pass around the corner played in an unmarked Fernandes for a dinked finish.
Yet for all his supreme ability, Pogba’s decision-making has been known to let him down, particularly in his own penalty area. The modern interpretation of the handball law has been around long enough to know not to dive in with your arms above your head, in what could only be interpreted as an unnatural and obstructive position.
As he slid in to block Rick Karsdrop’s cross with both hands pointing towards the top tier of the Stretford End, there was only going to be one outcome. Pellegrini converted the spot-kick and with that away goal from nothing, Roma suddenly had the upper hand in the tie. And even though Fonseca’s players were dropping like flies, with goalkeeper Pau Lopez joining Jordan Veretout in coming off injured, they would soon extend that advantage.
United had regained composure after the penalty and largely dominated but a spell of lax defending and a spot of uncharacteristic positional indiscipline by Aaron Wan-Bissaka allowed Roma to score again. With the United right-back caught upfield, Henrikh Mkhitaryan had time to pick out Pellegrini, who was played onside by Luke Shaw and squared across the six-yard box. There, Dzeko was waiting to score the sixth Old Trafford goal of his career.
Solskjaer’s hopes of a short stay in Gdansk were taking serious damage from a team that has been inconsistent at best in Serie A this season and was losing player after player to injury. Leonardo Spinazzola was the latest to come off, forcing Fonseca to use all of his three substitution ‘windows’ inside the first half. No further changes at half time meant the 11 leggy Roma that started the second half would have to finish it too.
United smelled blood. Within three minutes, they were level, taking advantage of Bryan Cristante’s hare-brained positioning to spring a counter-attack against only two members of Roma’s back three. As Smalling and Roger Ibanez both occupied themselves with Fernandes, his clipped pass was expertly finished by the unmarked Cavani, high and into the top right-hand corner.
Still, a couple more were required in order to take the sting out of Roma’s away goals. Cavani obliged. Antonio Mirante, Lopez’s 37-year-old replacement in the visiting goal, should really have held onto Wan-Bissaka’s tame attempt but instead parried it directly into the path of the Uruguayan, who has proved over the last six months in Manchester that he knows how to be in the right place at the right time. It was a tap-in. Advantage United.
Cavani pressed on, winning the penalty for United’s fourth, though how much he knew about it is debatable. There was very little in the challenge from Smalling, who slid in for a 50-50 and clashed with Cavani on the follow-through. Any offence may even only have happened off-the-pitch as both slid into the advertising hoardings but referee Carlos Grande was certain. Fernandes, predictably, made sure from the spot.
The United penalty taker’s form has tailed off of late but he seemed engaged in a personal battle with Cavani to wrack up goals and assists. A fine cross onto Pogba’s head took advantage of yet more slack Roma marking, with the fingers pointing at Smalling in particular. Yet Cavani would not be outdone. Four minutes from time, a wonderful, searching pass straight into Greenwood’s feet set up the sixth. Surely, Solskjaer will not suffer another semi-final disappointment from here.
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