A Europa League last-16 game against Real Betis was never going to entirely undo the Anfield Unpleasantness for Manchester United, but this still went as well as could be hoped.
A week ago Manchester United’s Europa League last-16 clash with Real Betis was a game whose framing would have been entirely built around its role in boosting or denting spurious hopes of a Manchester United Quadruple, hopes that resided almost entirely within the minds of half-a-dozen or so journalists.
Now, though, after The Unpleasantness, it was a match that actually did mean more than a run-of-the-mill Europa League last-16 clash. Now it would by necessity be measured as A Response or perhaps even A Reaction. And in those terms: hurrah! Manchester United are firmly now Back On Track. Sure, there was no result here that could entirely undo The Unpleasantness, but as a performance, this ticked all the necessary boxes and a couple of extra bonus ones.
Bruno Fernandes played well (which feels important) in an unchanged team (which feels very important). He scored a goal, created a goal and was very heavily involved in a nerve-settling, mood-boosting early opener for Marcus Rashford, who took a break from disgracefully driving his own car to places to net his 26th goal of a brilliant season. Some big ticks in there.
Sign-bothering miscreant Wout Weghorst getting a goal is just legitimately a nice thing to happen, and, while the fourth goal in a 4-1 win can’t ever be truly described as crucial, it’s also not entirely meaningless either. There feels like a very big difference between a two-goal lead and a three-goal lead after the home game of a two-legged tie. Two goals is a good lead but one that requires a bit of care and attention. Three goals is a tie-killing lead unless you do something really stupid and we’re pretty sure United have got their ‘something really stupid’ out of their system for a bit.
The second half was an unalloyed success story, 45 minutes of United dominance and crisp attacking football that could have brought more than the three goals United plundered. It may only be half as many as six, but it’s still a very decent number of goals to score in 45 minutes in pretty much any game of football.
What’s perhaps more interesting is how you choose to frame that second half in relation to the way the first 45 minutes panned out. The negative framing would be that United rather lost their way after an early goal that should really have set them on their way to an entirely stress-free evening.
Instead, a game but limited Real Betis were invited back into the tie and by the time Ayoze Perez drew them level with an outrageously precise outside-of-the-boot finish just past the half-hour there could be no grumbling that it was undeserved or hadn’t been coming. And things could have got worse before the break, with Perez hitting the post.
There’s no point pretending the defensive frailty on show in the last 20 minutes of the half against a team whose attacking threat comprised chiefly of a Leicester loanee and timelord Joaquin wasn’t a bit of a concern. There were definitely a few mental and physical hangovers from the weekend on display, with Luke Shaw appearing notably leggy in his often laboured attempts to shut down Perez. The goal was the culmination of that particular struggle.
But we’re in charitable mood tonight and prefer the positive spin that actually United overcoming some adversity here, ceding control and wresting it right back, is a good thing. If tonight had just been easy – even against a team that shut out Real Madrid at the weekend – it would be too easily dismissed. It’s only Betis. It’s only Europa.
Now, though, United’s second-half performance – and it really was rather good – looks far more impressive because it came against a team that played well in the first half and in a context where demons from The Unpleasantness could have very easily resurfaced in truly damaging style.
The Quadruple was never a realistic target anyway, but by bouncing back so swiftly from what happened at Anfield United have at least ensured that Sunday’s defeat has no lasting impact on the genuinely realistic prospect of adding at least one more shiny thing to last month’s Carabao.