Manchester United look to have one foot in the 2020-21 UEFA Europa League final after a dominant second-half display saw them inflict a comprehensive 6-2 defeat on AS Roma in the first leg of their semi-final at Old Trafford on Thursday.
After falling behind in the first half, Manchester United rode on braces from Bruno Fernandez and Edinson Cavani and a goal apiece from Paul Pogba and Mason Greenwood to power to a big win.
Manchester United started the game in confident fashion and took a well-deserved lead in the ninth minute when Bruno Fernandes put the finishing touches on a slick passing move. However, the home team was quickly pegged back, as Lorenzo Pellegrini put Roma back on level terms from the penalty spot just six minutes later.
After withstanding Manchester United’s early pressure, the visitors looked set to cause an upset, as they took the lead in the 33rd minute, with former Manchester City man Edin Dzeko slotting home Pellegrini’s precise pass.
However, Edinson Cavani settled Manchester United's nerves by netting the leveller just three minutes into the second half before bagging his second in the 64th as United wrested back control of the tie from the visitors.
Now firmly in the ascendancy, Manchester United established total dominance over their tiring opponents, who had been forced into three first-half substitutions due to injury. The hosts scored a fourth via a Fernandes penalty before Paul Pogba and Mason Greenwood put the result beyond doubt for the hosts.
The game evoked memories of Manchester United’s famous 7-1 thrashing of AS Roma at Old Trafford in a Champions League quarter-final tie in 2006. On that note, let's have a look at the five major talking points from the game.
#1 Manchester United welcome some familiar faces in the Roma ranks back to Old Trafford
The Serie A has emerged as a popular destination for Premier League players on the move in recent times. Manchester United has provided the Italian top flight with a number of players over the past few seasons.
A number of loan signings and former players from Manchester United are now plying their trade for the top clubs in Italy, with the Red Devils quite well represented with the likes of Inter Milan, AC Milan, Juventus, Lazio, and their opponents on the night, AS Roma.
In the starting lineup for the Giallorossi on the night were Chris Smalling and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, two members of Manchester United’s 2017 Europa League-winning team, who were now facing off their former side.
There were also a couple of players on the books of AS Roma with Premier League experience. Another familiar face led the line for the Italians in the form of Edin Dzeko, the former Manchester City striker who enjoyed a successful spell with Manchester United’s local rivals.
#2 Eventful first leg leaves Roma with mixed emotions
It is improbable for a team to score two away goals in the first leg of a European semi-final and walk away disappointed with the final result. But that is the situation AS Roma find themselves in.
The Italian team had a whirlwind first half at Old Trafford, scoring two precious away goals. But they suffered no less than three unfortunate injuries to key personnel, which forced the manager into making as many changes before the half-time interval.
The first-half injuries, which left Roma with no opportunities to make changes in the second half, proved to be their undoing. The visitors tired noticeably after the break, and Manchester United took due advantage by bagging a hatful of goals.
AS Roma are left clinging on to two away goals and the faint hope that their injured players can recover in time for the second leg as they eye an improbable comeback from a four-goal deficit to reach the Europa League final.
Barring a spectacular comeback, it appears that AS Roma's hopes of progression have already been extinguished by their humbling defeat at Old Trafford.
#3 Bruno Fernandes fires again, but familiar defensive issues persist for Manchester United
Bruno Fernandes played a starring role in Manchester United’s triumph in this semi-final tie. The Portuguese international found his scoring boots again after a goal drought, bagging a timely brace for his team.
Having last found the net from the penalty spot against Manchester City in early March, Fernandes' profitable return from this game would have been cause for great optimism for both him and Manchester United as the season draws to a close.
However, there was a period in the first half when Manchester United were distinctly second-best. Even as AS Roma players seemed to drop like flies due to injury, the visitors turned the game on its head. They first equalised in the 15th minute before taking the lead through Dzeko in the 33rd, with the home defence at sixes and sevens.
As has been the case on a few occasions this season, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men were guilty of committing too many men forward and were left short at the back. That allowed their Italian visitors to orchestrate a clinical passing move which ended in Dzeko scoring into an unguarded net as Manchester United defenders looked around in anguish.
Although Manchester United were able to turn the tie around in the second half in spectacular fashion, this persistent issue is one that needs Solskjaer’s immediate and urgent attention, especially with the Europa League title potentially on the line.
#4 Veteran strikers show their worth as Dzeko and Cavani shine
Both Manchester United and AS Roma went into this game with a lot of experience in attack.
34-year-old Edinson Cavani lined up for Manchester United against a 35-year-old Edin Dzeko, who led the line for the visitors. Despite the lop-sided result, the two strikers showcased the importance of experience at the top level, with impressive displays.
A long-term injury to Anthony Martial has meant Cavani has firmly established himself as Manchester United’s first-choice striker this season, and the Uruguayan has repaid the club’s faith in him with several key goals.
Cavani was on top form in this game, bagging artful assists for Manchester United’s first and last goals. He also got on the scoresheet himself with a brace, putting on an exemplary display of movement, positioning and finishing against one of his favourite opponents over the years.
At the other end, Dzeko was up against an old foe in Manchester United and was a constant annoyance for Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof as an effective target man. Dzeko showcased not just his physicality but also extended his excellent goal-scoring form against his former local rivals with a well-taken goal in the first half.
#5 Manchester United looking for their first title under Solskjaer, AS Roma looking to salvage their season
While it goes without saying that every Europa League semi-final is a hard-fought and competitive affair, Manchester United and AS Roma came into this fixture with strong yet different objectives to progress to the final.
The English outfit currently sit second in the Premier League table and have all but secured a place in next season’s Champions League. However, they are still searching for their first trophy under manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as they look to put an end to a lengthy period of transition and mark the start of a new era at the club with silverware.
Meanwhile, the Italian giants occupy seventh place in a tightly-contested Serie A table and would view winning the Europa League as their most viable route to European football next season.
As such, this two-legged tie carried an extra level of intrigue as both teams took to the field with a distinct but equally compelling motivation to secure their passage to the next stage of the Europa League.