It was one touch but it was glorious one. Half an hour into this match, Marcus Rashford watched the ball fall through the night sky, travelling sixty, seventy yards to where he was running. He caught it on his toe, tamed it, and turned it into the only goal, sending it beyond Rui Silva and Manchester United into a position from which they went on to secure a result with which they will should now progress to the semi-final.
For almost an hour the goal Rashford appeared set to be the only one scored on a historic occasion for the hosts, but then with two minutes to go, the game but not the tie slipping away from Granada, Bruno Fernandes slipped a penalty under Silva’s body that should be a safe passage for Ole Gunnar Solksjær’s side. If there is a team that have repeatedly defied the odds it is Granada, but even they will not like their chances of overturning a 2-0 defeat at home.
It was a historic occasion, but not an epic match. From United’s point of view, though, it was enough – it may have flaterred them in fact – even though they will be without Luke Shaw, Scott McTominay and Harry Maguire in the second leg, all booked here. For Granada, it might have been expected but that didn’t make it easy to take. An evening that started in excitement ended in silent disappointment.
Granada’s fans gave the team a motorbike cavalcade on the ground, thousands of them beeping and revving and roaring their way to Los Cármenes, where supporters waited with smoke and scarves. No, there wasn’t much social distancing. But, no, there hasn’t ever been a night like this, either. In the week they turned ninety, the first season they had ever played in Europe, they could barely believe that Manchester United were actually coming to play at their place.
There was awe, but there had to be ambition too, and it only took Granada twenty seconds to win possession and for Carlos Neva to whip the first ball into United’s area. But this is a team that has defied the odds through resistance and organisation above all, a toughness and pragmatism to them, and soon the game settled into a pattern which saw United take 65% of first half possession. Not that very much was happening, apart from a streaker running on. Rashford hit a long free-kick into the empty stands and then bent a shot over. At the other end, Robert Kenedy sliced a shot over, and that was about it.
Until, that was, Granada had their first opportunity and United got the first goal. Roberto Soldado hit the side-netting from close range. From the goal-kick, United scored, an almost uninterested simplicity about it all. David de Gea rolled it to Victor Lindelöf who walked forward five metres, then ten, then fifteen, apparently going nowhere in particular and no one going to him. Suddenly, he struck a long, long ball over the top that dropped perfectly for Rashford. The first touch was gorgeous, the finish was comfortable enough after that, but it was clean too.
Granada reacted, Ángel Montoro’s clipped deliveries invariably the most incisive of their passes, while the intensity rose too, a bit edge entering the game. Yangel Herrera hit the post, Soldado striking wide, and from a long deep corner routine, Kenedy struck a wonderfully clean volley that De Gea gathered.
The teams were out too early for the second, forced to wait for the referee as Smoke on the Water belted out. When they did start, Kenedy fired off another clean, hard shot from outside the area that De Gea dealt with. Maguire then ran through further than he should have been allowed and struck wide before, a moment later, Yangel flicked the ball over his head, leaving him trailing well behind as he dashed towards the area but failed to find Soldado. The Spaniard then sliced wide.
Kenedy continued to fire off shots, De Gea continued to deal with them, and the match continued to be one of few truly clear opportunities even though Granada had taken something of a step forward. Yangel, dynamic and increasingly daring too, turned and shot over before almost slipping in Neva.
By then, Rashford had made way for Cavani, the threat beyond the defence gone almost entirely. Pogba departed too, replaced by Matic. Granada then turned to Dimitri Foulquier and DarwÌn MachÌs. Granada had to go for this, but cautiously: on the touchline, Diego MartÌnez was calling for his players to use their heads. They also tended to find Scott McTominay standing before them. They could feel time slipping away but not yet the tie, they found the referee pointing the spot and, in all probability, the end of the road.