Manchester United have one foot in the Europa League semi-finals after a comfortable victory over a cynical Granada side in southern Spain.
Marcus Rashford and a late Bruno Fernandes penalty gave Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side a commanding – perhaps if not quite decisive – advantage ahead of next week’s Old Trafford second leg. Here are three observations from the Nuevo Estadio Los Carmenes.
Where do they find these abysmal referees?
If you thought the officiating in the Premier League was bad, that really was new levels of inept from Portuguese official Artur Dias. United committed fewer fouls than their Spanish opposition but yet seemed to get pulled up on everything. Harry Maguire’s booking wasn’t even a foul and Nemanja Matic got cautioned for literally heading the ball away. The referee showed more cards than Clinton’s, he was took quick to blow and penalised us for everything despite the fact Granada were the most cynical, dirty side I’ve seen at this level. Yet only two of their players got a card. How that Herrera bloke wasn’t sent off, never mind booked, I’ll never know. To call his style ‘robust’ is an understatement – he was intent on kicking anything that moved and Dan James in particular was lucky to escape without serious injury. Quite how he stayed on the field is beyond me but then what do you expect from a former City player. Where on earth do they find these referees? Fortunately it didn’t cost us but it’s another game where we’ve had a raw deal from an official and I’m sick of it now. United weren’t at their best but its difficult when you’re getting kicked to the ground every two minutes. It would’ve been an absolute travesty if we hadn’t won that tie and the referee did nothing to stamp out Granada’s overtly physical mindset. Granada’s tactics were to sit on the 18 yard line and then kick, push, elbow, scythe and hack anything that moved every time United dared to break forward. No one could deny United got a raw deal, yet again, from a ref and you expect better from a major European tournament.
Key men suspended for Old Trafford second leg
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be forced into at least three changes for the return at Old Trafford next Thursday. United will be without skipper Harry Maguire, left-back Luke Shaw and key midfielder Scott McTominay after all three men picked up bookings to rule them out of the return with suspension. You’d expect Alex Telles – who replaced Shaw at half-time – to come in from the start, and either Fred, Donny van de Beek or Nemanja Matic to come in for McTominay. In a way, the absentees are a blessing in disguise as it allows three key players to have breathers ahead of a frantic run-in, batteries can be recharged and legs rested up for the battles ahead. Shaw probably would’ve been left out anyway, and maybe McTominay too, but Maguire plays every game so his absence will cause Solskjaer a rare dilemma. The question of who partners Victor Lindelof is an interesting one. Eric Bailly is unlikely to recover in time having contracted Covid so you’d expect Axel Tuanzebe to come in alongside the Iceman at the heart of a United defence that was barely tested by the rank Spanish outsiders. I didn’t see anything from Granada to suggest we’re in trouble so despite the enforced rotation, United should be confident of completing the job and progressing to a fifth semi-final under Solskjaer.
Job done for Solskjaer’s United
The latter stages of a European knockout tournament are rarely enthralling spectacles (although Bayern and PSG made a mockery of that on Wednesday night). When you get to this point, it becomes less about the performance but all about the result and, if you’re a United fan, you really can’t complain at all. The Reds never looked in trouble and always seemed comfortable, even with only a 1-0 lead until the closing stages. Marcus Rashford’s brilliant control and finish from a sublime Lindelof through pass set Solskjaer’s men on their way, and despite the rough house tactics of their hosts, United kept their heads and sealed a satisfying away win late on through a Bruno Fernandes penalty. It was probably the Portuguese’s worst spot-kick for United, but we don’t think he’ll care too much having converted the kick to earn United valuable breathing space. I didn’t see anything from Granada to suggest they’re capable of a remarkable turnaround in the second leg, so we can start to pencil in what seems set to be a last four meeting with either Ajax or Roma. The Italian side sprung perhaps a minor surprise with a 2-1 victory in Amsterdam and so, as it stands, a trip to the Eternal City is in the offing. Of course, this is football and it’s Europe, so nothing is ever 100% certain but if United blow it from here, we may as well give up.