Manchester United should have a comfortable lead to take to Sevilla for the Europa League quarter-final second leg, but bad luck and bad defending cost them.
Manchester United’s players probably could have done with a Thursday night off. The visit of Sevilla in the Europa League for their quarter-final first leg was their 50th game of the season, and that could yet rise by another 11 with Premier League, FA Cup and Europa League games still to play.
It’s not *quite* as many as Liverpool did last season, but it’s still a lot. The fixtures just keep on piling up; that’s one of the small downsides of being successful. But by the end of the evening, with one player potentially seriously injured, they’d thrown away a two-goal lead and commanding early performance to make their trip to Spain for the second leg considerably more difficult.
If fatigue is a growing concern for Erik ten Hag over the remainder of the season, he might at least have thought that he had the perfect opponents for this occasion. Sevilla could teach even Chelsea a thing or two about what it means to be in ‘crisis’. United’s opponents have collapsed into something approaching chaos over the last year or so, with the board at war, the club leaking money left, right and centre, and the team hopelessly atrophying on the pitch after some catastrophic transfer dealings.
In less than a season, they’ve gone from being top-four contenders to 13th place in La Liga, only five points above the relegation zone. They’re on their third manager of the season, with Jose Luiz Mendilibar in charge after the club burned through Julen Lopetegui and Jorge Sampaoli. Their position on the pitch has mirrored the overall condition of the club to a tee, and although their league form has improved slightly of late, there’s still a possibility that they could go down.
And by the midway point in the first half, it was already starting to feel as though the tie might already be pretty much over as a contest. It took less than 30 seconds for Manchester United to have the ball in the Sevilla net, only for a flag to go up for a pretty clear offside.
Sevilla’s stay of execution didn’t last very long. Fourteen minutes later, Marcel Sabitzer stroked the ball in from the edge of the penalty area, and seven minutes later he did so again. Bruno Fernandes provided the ball the first time as Sevilla’s defence stood back with the gait of frightened rabbits, and for the second a mis-control in the centre of midfield handed the ball to Anthony Martial, a former Sevilla loanee, whose perfectly weighted through-ball was met with a perfectly timed run from Sabitzer.
No matter how poor the opposition, this was excellent football.
But after a comfortable first half-hour, United’s evening started to dissolve in front of them. Erik Lamela avoided a red card after going in on Casemiro with somewhat over-excitable studs. He was given a yellow card by the referee, but there was a lengthy VAR check, although this eventually went in Lamela’s favour.
A minute or so later, Fernandes was dubiously yellow-carded, a decision likely influenced by the way in which his arm moved, which means that he will miss the second leg of this tie. His response was precisely as you would have expected.
And then, in the third minute of stoppage-time, Sevilla almost struck again, an excellent save from David de Gea and a superb clearance from Raphael Varane keeping the ball out of the goal in a frantic end to the half which gave just a tiny pause for thought as the half-time whistle blew. Perhaps the fatigue was just starting to creep in.
The break didn’t seem to do Manchester United much good, and they were sluggish again throughout the opening stages of the second half. Sevilla had their tails up, but didn’t create a great deal, unless we’re counting Nemanja Gudelj booting Casemiro in the forehead and earning himself a yellow card into the bargain. And when Manchester United did break, Sevilla’s defence continued to look like it was auditioning for a remake of Watership Down. Antony found a lot of space in the right-hand channel and hit the angle of post and crossbar with an angled shot.
Unsurprisingly, changes were made. Christian Eriksen, Anthony Elanga and Wout Weghorst all came on. Within a couple of minutes, Weghorst had the crowd on their feet by galloping at the Sevilla goalkeeper Bono in the manner of a hyper Great Dane, blocking the clearance after he dawdled for too long.
But Manchester United had lost their way since about five minutes before the half-time break, and a match that had looked done and dusted at the midway point in the first half was at risk of slipping back into doubt. A scrappy second half was illuminated by an ongoing feud between Antony and Marcos Acuna, with an extra layer of jeopardy added by the fact that both players picked up yellow cards, meaning that one false move could result in one or both of them getting sent off. There was an element of pantomime about it all from the outset which was truly betrayed when the camera caught them joking with each other about it. Antony was withdrawn with a little under 10 minutes to play.
And with six minutes left, United’s evening started to truly fall apart. Tyrell Malacia left a harmless diagonal pass from midfield to run out, blissfully unaware that Jesus Navas was lurking behind him. Navas attempted a shot-cum-cross across the face of goal which bounced in off David de Gea. Barely a minute later, Lisandro Martinez pulled up with no-one near him and was carried off the pitch for what looked, from the player’s own reaction, like it could be a serious injury.
An evening that had started extremely positively was ending under a cloud, and in the third minute of stoppage-time the cloud broke into a storm. It wasn’t as though a warning hadn’t already been served. Youssef En-Nesyri had already pulled one superb save from De Gea when he got up inside the penalty area, thumping a header against the back of the hapless Harry Maguire’s slab for a second own goal, and a very late equaliser.
While Maguire could make a claim for having been unlucky with his own goal, Malacia and De Gea had less of an argument over the first. And while these moments can be viewed as ‘unfortunate’ in a very broad sense, it doesn’t alter the fact that own goals are ultimately self-inflicted, and that Manchester United were coasting during the first half and should have been absolutely out of sight by that time regardless. Instead, whether through bad luck, complacency or fatigue, they made their second leg considerably more difficult than it ever needed to be.
Sevilla may be a crisis club, but they seem to have muscle memory in this particular competition. The paucity of their first-half performance was more than compensated for by their improvement as the game progressed. They scented blood and had the experience to exploit the gaps at the back which opened up after Manchester United replaced Varane with Maguire at half-time and then lost Martinez.
More wins equals more matches, and more matches equals more fatigue. It comes with the territory. Add some bad luck, injuries and individual errors to that, and losing a two-goal lead from a commanding position starts to make a little more sense than it may have done as the final whistle blew at a stunned Old Trafford.