Marcus Rashford’s extra-time goal sent Manchester United into the Europa League semi-final at the expense of Anderlecht on a night of tension at Old Trafford.
The Europa League has acquired huge significance for United and manager Jose Mourinho as it offers a potential route into the Champions League, away from the battle for top-four places in the Premier League – making this victory crucial.
United took the lead on the night and in the tie when Henrikh Mkhitaryan drilled in a low finish in the 10th minute but Anderlecht restored parity when Sofiane Hanni scrambled home an equaliser after 32 minutes.
Mourinho’s side were their own worst enemies with a shocking display of finishing as they missed chance after chance, their cause also undermined by injuries to defender Marcos Rojo in the first half and a serious-looking knee injury to top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the end of normal time.
United were facing the prospect of a penalty shootout but Rashford, a scorer against Chelsea at the weekend, made the decisive contribution after 107 minutes with a brilliant turn and finish from Marouane Fellaini’s knockdown.
Do Man Utd still lack killer touch?
Manchester United flirted with an exit from the Europa League here – and if they had gone out they would only have had themselves to blame.
As on so many occasions this season, United created multiple chances only to waste the opportunities and leave themselves hostages to fortune and the threatening counter-attacks of Anderlecht.
Rashford, Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba were all guilty of a succession of bad misses as the flaw that has undermined United all season reared its ugly head once more and kept Anderlecht in contention right until the final whistle in extra time.
On this occasion, at least, United rescued themselves with Rashford’s goal but Mourinho will know his side must discover the killer touch from somewhere if they are to secure the Champions League place that must be the minimum requirement from this season.
Expensive night in victory?
United can celebrate another step towards winning the Europa League and the Champions League place that comes with it – but this may yet prove to be expensive night for Mourinho as the season reaches its climax.
The biggest concern will surround Ibrahimovic, whose knee looked to give way as he challenged for a high ball in the final moments of normal time. He managed to get to his feet and wave away the waiting stretcher but was helped off as he limped down the tunnel at the Stretford End.
Ibrahimovic had actually had a nightmare before his injury but his influence this season has been huge and United will anxiously await the medical update.
Rashford has delivered against Chelsea and here against Anderlecht, offering the pace and movement which the 35-year-old Swede cannot, but the loss of Ibrahimovic would still be a setback of major significance after his 28 goals this season.
And there will be almost equal concern about the injury to Rojo that saw the central defender taken off on a stretcher in the first half. He had received lengthy treatment previously before collapsing in a second challenge. United are already without injured central defenders Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, so they can ill-afford to lose Rojo.
This was a vital victory for Manchester United – but it may yet be victory at a heavy price.
Mourinho still on course
When Mourinho was appointed United manager, it was with the express intention of bringing more trophies to Old Trafford – but also putting the club back in the Champions League.
Mourinho may be taking the scenic route and learning to love a competition he derided for so long, but with the fight for the top four in the Premier League so tight and with United facing tough trips to Manchester City and Arsenal in the run-in, the Europa League provides a welcome safety net.
The poor relation of European football’s competitions has suddenly acquired crucial status at Old Trafford, as the celebrations at the conclusion of extra time proved.