Rashford risk pays off
Ole Gunnar Solskaer has become renowned in his Manchester United press conferences for playing games of poker when asked about players’ injuries. When he says a player is injured, it can often be a stone-cold bluff and then they appear in the starting line-up the next day.
The Marcus Rashford situation before this Granada game wasn’t quite like that, however, with Solskjaer showing his hand when speaking to MUTV about his selections an hour before kick off.
Asked about Rashford’s fitness, he said: “Like Marcus is, he says he’s okay. He’s a little bit sore but he’s not worried about his injury. And there’s no doubt in my mind that I need to play him.”
That it took less than five minutes for the United forward to lean down on his haunches after a slight knock looked to tell its own story; Rashford is nowhere near full fitness right now.
It’s to the player’s credit that he continues to menace opposition right-backs, even in his current state.
His run inside the Granada right-back Victor Diaz to latch onto Victor Lindelof’s raking pass, and subsequent touch and finish, was right out of the top drawer. Even before that, Rashford had appeared United’s main source of attacking threat, during a first half that was threatening to become a snooze-fest.
It was a relief for many United supporters to see Rashford hauled off, uninjured, after 66 minutes against Granada. Half fit or not, he’d managed to do his damage by then.
De Gea gets the night he wanted
Whether or not being selected in a Europa League quarter-final is a boost for David de Gea’s confidence is a moot point right now. The fact remains that he has lost his Premier League place to Dean Henderson and the European competition has long been the realm of the No.2 for United.
Sergio Romero and Henderson himself can both attest to that, though De Gea can emulate both his former understudies with some solid performances in the Europa League, to propel himself back into the No.1 mix.
Two solid stops from Kenedy’s volleyed pile-drivers, and another from a daisy-cutter from the on-loan Chelsea man, were the extent of his work back on Spanish soil on Thursday night. He had a Yangel Herrera effort covered, even if it struck his post.
It was about as satisfactory a night as De Gea could have wished for.
United untroubled by wasteful hosts
The billing this match received as the biggest in Granada’s history was reflected in the scenes outside the Nuevo Estadio de Los Cármene before kick-off — even if no fans were allowed inside the ground. The heightened excitement was, as Solskjaer said in his pre-match interview, a sign that things are beginning to return to normal in football.
But that was also a false dawn suggesting both teams would be hyped up for the match. The action was sadly lacking, a typical feature of games in this era of behind-closed-doors football.
United barely got out of second gear and they didn’t need to either. After a couple of brief Kenedy forays down the hosts’ left, Solskjaer’s side were comfortably able to see off Granada’s attacking threat. Bar one effort off the outside of De Gea’s woodwork from Herrera, the United goal wasn’t troubled in the first half.
The hosts sustained more pressure in the second, but continually wasted good positions. They did not perform on their big stage.
The burden for goals
“Bruno Fernandes shouldn’t be United’s top scorer,” said Owen Hargreaves, on BT Sport punditry duty for this game.
It was one of those points Solskjaer would likely take issue with, claiming (with some justification) that there’s nothing wrong with a player like Fernandes shouldering the responsibility for goals. If anyone can handle such pressure — and thrive with it — it’s Fernandes. Plus he’s the penalty taker. And as we saw in Granada, United get a good amount of chances from the spot.
But the fact it’s taken Rashford until April — albeit in a truncated season — to join Fernandes in notching 20 goals in all competitions for the season, shows where United’s issue lies.
Solskjaer cannot rely on Fernandes forever, even if the Portuguese wants him to. He should have made it 2-0 in the dying stages after being played through by Daniel James. Although Fernandes notched minutes later, it showed that United either need more goals from their current forwards, or to sign another goalscorer, not more from Fernandes. He is only human.
Granada’s penalty record
No team has conceded more penalties in La Liga this season than Granada.
So, despite a largely uninspiring second half performance from United, it wasn’t a major surprise when Fernandes did eventually get the chance to double their lead late on when the referee signalled for a penalty.
The flip side to the penalty stat was that Granada goalkeeper Rui Silva had saved 62 per cent of penalties he’d faced this season. That was before Fernandes stepped up from 12 yards in the 90th minute. And he somehow squirmed the ball through Silva for a 2-0 first-leg lead.