Manchester United win and Bruno Fernandes scores a penalty? Sounds familiar enough. But Monday’s Europa League quarter-final against Copenhagen, a peculiar one-off meeting in the strangest of seasons, was fittingly weird.
United mostly dominated, had 26 shots, hit the target 14 times, hit the post three times, but needed an extra-time spot-kick to progress 1-0. Copenhagen defended, failed to test Sergio Romero once in 120 minutes, but never looked out of the game – one that finished at close to midnight in Cologne with the temperature still at 28 degrees Celcius.
In United red, there were performances that were brilliant and infuriating in equal measure. Anthony Martial led the Copenhagen defence on a merry dance but finished as though he had two left feet; Brandon Williams controlled the left flank but gave the Danes their best opening; Juan Mata was exceptional off the bench and still made a mess of three chances for a second goal.
United can be certain of one thing, though: this is the sort of game where smashing the British transfer record for Jadon Sancho would come in handy.
15 – Jadon Sancho (16 goals, 16 assists) is the first English player to register both 15 goals and assists in a single season in the top five European leagues since @mattletiss7 in the 1994-95 Premier League. Talent. #SCPBVB pic.twitter.com/35a75mhies
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 31, 2020
Monday marked Borussia Dortmund’s deadline for a Sancho deal to go through. The player travelled with the squad for their pre-season training camp and sporting director Michael Zorc declared the matter was at an end, saying: “We plan on having Jadon Sancho in our team this season. The decision is final. I think that answers all our questions.”
It doesn’t, of course. United never looked likely to strike a deal so early in a transfer window that runs until October and it’s largely expected they will continue to seek an agreement that won’t threaten the stability of either the club’s finances post-pandemic or the dressing room. Their latest performance is unlikely to change that.
73% – Manchester United have kept a clean sheet in 73% of their games under Ole Gunnar Solskjær in the Europa League (8/11); the highest percentage of any manager to have taken charge of 10+ games at a club in the competition. Mettle. #UEL pic.twitter.com/aWMi3ZpKXV
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 10, 2020
Copenhagen had conceded more than one goal just twice in their previous 42 games in Europe. They knew the onus was on United to dictate and, presumably, also knew the difficulty the Red Devils have had in breaking down sides this season. Their approach was not a surprise, and nor was United’s inability to unsettle them.
Luck was against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, it’s true. Mason Greenwood had a goal disallowed for offside, a penalty was overturned because of Harry Maguire straying beyond the last man, and Greenwood, Fernandes and Victor Lindelof each hit the woodwork.
There was also an inspired Karl-Johan Johnsson in the Copenhagen goal. In a remarkable performance, he made 13 saves, the joint-most of any keeper in a Europa League match since the competition’s rebranding from the UEFA Cup in 2009. The best came against Martial, who grew increasingly dangerous as the game wore on and was the only United forward to drive at the Copenhagen defence and destabilise their impressive rearguard.
That’s where Sancho would be invaluable. The 20-year-old has plundered the Bundesliga in a Dortmund side where he is encouraged to run straight at a full-back or centre-half at every available opportunity. Against a team like Copenhagen, built around zonal marking and covering the space in front of the box, that kind of approach can shift matters in your favour.
Of course, United should be expected to beat teams like this without an extra-time penalty or the need to spend around £100million on a new winger, and they certainly created enough to have made the scoreline more comfortable. The inescapable truth remains that Solskjaer’s side lurch from dazzling to tedious, too often attacking down blind alleys while trying to follow the trumpeted United Way.
Sancho would change that – assuming he would want to go.
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