Manchester United have a foot and three toes in the Europa League final after a scintillating second half eviscerated Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s semi final hoodoo.
Spearheaded by the magnificent Edinson Cavani and the brilliance of Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba, the tricky showtime Reds turned on the style at a sodden Old Trafford to surely seal a place in next month’s showpiece in Gdansk. No one could have seen the second half salvo coming during half-time when the spectre of previous last four failings hung over Solskjaer like the plague.
Here are three things learned from peak Ole ball at Old Trafford
Manchester United’s triumphant triumvirate
Whilst this was a magnificent all-round team performance, three players in particular shone through at the Theatre of Dreams. Cavani is playing like a man possessed at the moment and the effervescent Uruguayan combined his veteran goalscoring instinct with all the vim, vigour and energetic zest of a man ten years his junior. I admittedly wasn’t sure when we signed Cavani on deadline day in what seemed like a last-ditch panic buy but how wrong I was. He should stay for another season and get the chance to play in front of fans – the Old Trafford faithful would love him.
Cavani – set up by Fernandes – equalised with a rising drive three minutes into the second half to kick-start the goal glut and then put the Reds ahead with a predatory close range effort. Not content with his two goals, Cavani set up Mason Greenwood to complete the scoring and deserved a hat-trick for a magnificent individual display. By his own ridiculously lofty standards, Fernandes has been below par of late but was back to his brilliant best here as he, too, deserved a treble. A wonderful goal to set us on our way, added the fourth from the spot, and claimed an assist for Cavani – when those two players are in sync and on form, United look simply unstoppable. Paul Pogba came to the party too, as he headed the fifth and pulled the strings from the left throughout, dovetailing with Cavani and Fernandes to devastating effect. Is there a better attacking trident in Europe?
Solskjaer smashes semi-final hoodoo…
Much has made been of Solskjaer’s poor record in semi-finals, with this being his fifth in all competitions. It raised inevitable questions over whether this side and its manager had the pre-requisite mentality – or “cojones” to get beyond the business end of knockout tournaments. In fairness, United have had ridiculously tough draws and several doses of bad luck but United’s falters at the (semi) final hurdle became impossible to ignore. For all the progress made since Ole’s arrival at Old Trafford, his doubters could legitimately point to a lack of silverware – or even the absence of a final – as reason enough when it comes to judging his compatibility for the job.
As I’m sure you don’t need me to embellish here, we had lost the previous four under him – twice to City in the League Cup, against Sevilla at the corresponding stage last season and to Chelsea in the FA Cup. But having navigated past Sociedad and Milan to earn a shot at another semi-final, United entered a last four tie as favourites for the first time. Roma seemed the most winnable semi so far, and so it proved although the state of affairs at half-time certainly told a different story. It looked as though this tie would tell a familiar tale until Roma wilted in the face of a United onslaught for the ages – one reminiscent of arguably the finest of them all – the 7-1 massacre 14 years ago almost to the day against a Roma side featuring the talismanic figurehead of Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi. Of course the job is not done yet – even if the second leg in the Eternal City now looks something of a formality, there is still a final to come. That will mean nothing if you don’t win it, and although it may “only” be the Europa League, any trophy is important for building a winning mentality.
Second half FC strike again
Manchester United may as well just sit in the dressing room for 45 minutes and then only emerge for the second half. What on earth does Ole Gunnar Solskjaer put in this side’s half time cuppa? It’s got to the point now where it makes you wonder if this is a deliberate tactic – to lull the opposition into a false sense of security and let them think we’re not all that before hitting with both barrels and pushing the pedal to the metal. It’s almost like the team only turn up for the second half deliberately to put us through the wringer and to see how far they can push our mental resolve. The old adage: “Its a game of two halves” was surely invented for Manchester United – the list of sensational, second half, climb off the canvas comebacks is simply staggering and extends to both my arms – Brighton, Spurs and now Roma in the last few weeks alone. That’s before you even consider Southampton, West Ham, Newcastle (twice), Fulham, Burnley and Everton off the top of my head. United hadn’t played too badly for the opening half hour but had been hit with a sucker punch to concede two away goals and leave another crunch encounter looking ropey yet again. But this side is made of stern stuff and rediscovered their raison d’etre to roar into the final and move to within 90 minutes of European glory.