Manchester United advanced to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Europa League after beating AC Milan by one goal to nil (2-1 on aggregate) in the second leg last 16 tie. We started the first half with a good tempo. We had a couple of chances early on when crosses from James and Greenwood into the box, were ultimately not met by the other attacking players. Luke Shaw was always looking a constant threat down the left-hand side. Milan then pushed us back towards our own goal, and our defence had to be alert as they threatened to open us up and score.
Ole made the intervention at half time as he bought Paul Pogba on for Marcus Rashford. The impact was immediate. Pogba hit a composed finish from close range to give United the lead, and the all important away goal. Until that goal, we did not look like we were going to break the deadlock. Dean Henderson was called upon as he produced a brilliant save from Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s header at the back post. The defence played their part as they stopped the Milan threat as they chased an equaliser, and we saw out the victory.
Here is a look at five things we learned from the game.
1. Paul Pobga – The Difference Maker
It had been obvious that we had missed Pogba’s presence in the last few weeks as our form hit a patchy run. We are definitely a better team when the Frenchman is in the side, and if it was not clear before, it’s certainly clear now. His performance tonight was brilliant in that second half. We had struggled to get a foothold in the first half. Pogba provided that spark we needed. It might have seemed odd that Solskjaer had put him on the left. Clearly the battle had to be won in the central midfield.
However, Solskjaer’s decision paid off in dividends. Pogba’s finish was composed. But it was his clever dummy that wrong-footed Milan’s Donnarumma as the ball went high into the goal. Over the course of the second half, Pogba’s position changed a few times. He started on the left side of the front three before moving into the false 9 position in the latter stages of the game. Not only was he getting forward but he was also tracking back to help out defensively.
It was his presence on the pitch that just lifted United and we looked like a better team in the second half. The return of Pogba also highlights the need for the club to tie him down to a new contract. We have to convince him to stay with us. To achieve success with this team, he will be an important part of it. It would be difficult to find a replacement if he did leave the club.
2. Strong defensive play
Whilst in recent games, we have struggled to score, it is at the other end of the pitch we have been much improved. Our defence delivered tonight as we produced another clean sheet that sent us through to the quarter-finals. Victor Lindelof made an important stop when Milan had been through on goal in the first half. AC Milan had created a few decent chances over the course of the 90 minutes, but United remained in control. When we had taken the lead, it did feel as if we were destined to go on for the victory. Though it was a nervy last 5 minutes for all United fans.
3. Dean Henderson produced another solid performance
Though it could be argued that Henderson was partly to blame for conceding the equaliser in the first leg against Milan, he rebounded from this to put in a solid performance for the return leg. Dean Henderson is showing that he is more than capable of ousting David De Gea to become United’s number one. De Gea was back in the squad following his isolation period after returning from Spain, but it was Henderson that got the nod.
He had made routined saves from both Franck Kessie and Alexis Saelemaekers in the first half. He would make another fine stop from Saelemaekers in the second half as he parried his shot with his left hand. Henderson’s best save came when he stopped a Zlatan Ibrahimovic header at the back post to deny the Milan equaliser.
He is a goalkeeper that is perfectly happy to come off his line to claim crosses, thus creating confidence and calmness in the back four. The defence could always look to be on the front foot rather than having to react to balls coming into the box.
4. Ole’s judgement call was the right one
As the first half came to a close, Ole Gunnar Solskjær had already seen enough. He made the decision to bring on Paul Pogba for the second half. Solskjær replaced Marcus Rashford, who was not having his best game. Pogba’s introduction gave United options. The Frenchman is good at holding possession of the ball, getting the ball forward and thus United looked much better straight away.
The change made by Solskjær was clearly the right one as Pogba scored within three minutes after coming on. With this decision, he should become more bolder with the use of the substitutions. It had also worked in the first leg when Amad Diallo came on and got United into the lead.
5. Quarter-Finals Here We Come
This was an important win for United tonight. Overcoming this Milan side was a big hurdle in the competition. It also shows that when we are put to the test, we can get the job done. We can take the confidence of this victory into this weekend’s FA Cup quarter-final match against Leicester City as we look to win some silverware at the end of the season. We have the draw for the last eight of the Europa League at midday on Friday as we find out who are our next opponents.
With both Tottenham and Rangers out and Arsenal being the only other Premier League side left, United should not fear any of the remaining teams in the competition.