Rashford magic tips balance in United’s favour
Celta Vigo 0 Manchester United 1
This is the competition in which Manchester United cannot afford to fail and in Marcus Rashford they have a home-grown star who seems determined to ensure that does not happen, with another winning goal on another big night.
The Europa League final in Stockholm this month is in sight, even for the great draw specialists of Old Trafford who return for the home leg next Thursday with a valuable away goal that has tipped this semi-final tie in their favour.
Jose Mourinho's route to the Champions League next season remains open and he embarked on a dash down the touchline towards the away fans when Rashford's second half free-kick hit the net.
They were the better team against a Celta Vigo side who seemed overawed by the occasion in the end and had a forgettable night after they missed an early chance gifted to Daniel Wass.
It felt a long way from the high quality of the Champions League last four, and Ajax, who won so convincingly in their first leg in the other Europa League semi-final may well feel that they remain the form team in this competition.
United have the big guns, however, it is just that they are trundling at this point of the season.
Paul Pogba was excellent in midfield and Rashford his usual unstoppable self but they needed a lot of chances eventually to score.
There was an injury to Ashley Young too, who had come on as a substitute in the second half and then had to be replaced leaving Chris Smalling as the unlikely candidate to shore up the centre of midfield.
It rarely felt like a semi-final of a major European competition before the break and was more a collision between two tired squads summoning one last push to see if they could overwhelm the other.
This was United's 58th game of the season, as Mourinho has pointed out a couple of times, and it was the 55th for the home team.
That showed in Celta's approach because they never really carried the home crowd along from the start.
There had been a fine atmosphere outside the Balaídos stadium in the hours before the game but once inside the home support in this one-city club, each of them given a free half-and-half scarf, seemed to have the energy sucked out of them just as much as their team.
Celta have never been this far in a European competition in their history, and at times you wondered how they have done so this time.
John Guidetti, the former Manchester City academy player, is a fairly basic physical centre-forward.
In the first half Iago Aspas played a lot like the man who disappeared without trace at Liverpool but nonetheless remains a legend in Vigo in this, his second spell at the club.
This was the period of the tie when you expected Celta to take their best shot at United but aside from a bad miss from the Danish midfielder Daniel Wass who put a header wide on 11 minutes from the cross of Serbian Nemanja Radoja, there was not much offered going forward.
By contrast, United created a series of chances and in midfield they looked solid. Paul Pogba was the pick of Mourinho's team in the first half, covering ground and tidying up turnovers of possession before driving forward himself.
His ball to Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the left channel on 34 minutes was the moment of highest quality in the first half and the Armenian's attempt to beat goalkeeper Sergio Álvarez was weak.
Mkhitaryan gave the ball away too much against a side who should not have been able to live with last season's top performer in the Bundesliga had he been on his game.
Rashford had a right-footed shot saved by Álvarez on 21 minutes. Jesse Lingard's attempt when Rashford played him on 38 minutes was pretty woeful, too. What was it Mourinho said about his team's lack of ruthlessness in front of goal?
There might have been some minor grumbles about the state of the pitch which seemed so heavily watered that there was a greater than usual amount of spray off the ball.
United did at least look in control of Celta's attack for the most part, although Eric Bailly, back in the side after injury, seemed to lose his way with Guidetti on a couple of occasions in a duel that the United man should have come out on top of quite easily.
Even with United off the standards they might have expected, Celta seemed unable to rouse themselves after the break save a shot from Pione Sisto, another Dane, which Sergio Romero pushed over the bar just before the hour.
Celta never succeeded in maintaining a sustained period of pressure and in the end the goal came from United.
Rashford had already spun once and turned his man who was barely facing in the right direction by the time the United striker had reached the Celta penalty area.
Later it was a foul on the right side by the Celta captain Hugo Mallo on Rashford which led to the free-kick from which the teenager scored.
It was a brilliant strike, hit with his right foot from the right channel and across the goalkeeper Alvarez, past his right hand and in.
The presence of Daley Blind also lining up as if to take the kick, who would have struck it with his preferred left, might have convinced the goalkeeper that it was going to the other side but either way it was a fine strike.
Mourinho was off down the touchline to celebrate with his own fans. He later brought off Mkhitaryan and then Rashford, the latter who seemed to be limping slightly and inflamed the Celta players with the slow pace of his walk to the touchline.
There was barely a late surge from Celta at the end and, save for one clumsy shove from Fellaini while on a booking United, coasted to the end with one foot in the final. (© Daily Telegraph, London)