Manchester United emerged from an invigorating contest with a surely unassailable advantage that all but places them in the Europa League final next month.
This victory, secured despite a 2-1 deficit at half-time, had the feel of the next major step in the evolution of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side. Bruno Fernandes’s 70th-minute penalty may have been dubiously awarded – Chris Smalling’s “foul” on Edinson Cavani appeared to be the latter merely falling over – but United’s talisman made no mistake.
Then, when Fernandes’s cross landed expertly on Paul Pogba’s head the Frenchman delivered a cool finish before Mason Greenwood’s late strike had them cockahoop. United will take a four-goal lead to Roma for the return, where they will be more than comfortable: this was the first time a team have scored six in a major continental semi-final since Real Madrid in 1964.
There had been a sense of now or never about this semi-final for United. Another elimination would be a fifth last-four reverse under the manager and serious questions would be asked regarding their ability to break the psychological barrier that separates also-rans from winners. So it was that Solskjaer sent out a strong lineup that featured Cavani up front, Pogba wide left and David de Gea in goal, against Italy’s seventh-best team.
Paulo Fonseca’s lineup included Smalling and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, both of whom started United’s triumphant Europa League final against Ajax in 2017. Yet his gameplan was disrupted when Jordan Veretout pulled a muscle inside three minutes, with Gonzalo Villar replacing the disappointed midfielder.
The same emotion swept across the visitors when Fernandes put United ahead: Shaw tapped to Pogba, who rolled Smalling and found Cavani. The forward passed to Fernandes and, as Pau López advanced, the Portuguese fashioned a sand‑wedge dink over the goalkeeper.
United, though, were the next to feel despair due to what felt a strange penalty decision from the referee, Carlos del Cerro Grande. When Rick Karsdorp skipped along the right he was chased by Pogba; his cross hit the trailing arm of the Frenchman, who was skidding along the turf so had scant control, but the spot-kick was given. Lorenzo Pellegrini, the Roma captain, smashed in to De Gea’s right.
United’s response came via Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Cavani and Aaron-Wan Bissaka, who pinned the Italian side back. Pogba also threatened: a curving 25-yard effort had Lopez flying left before he became the second visitor to be replaced after he injured a shoulder. Antonio Mirante took the gloves in his place.
Next, Pogba won a free-kick that was driven in by Fernandes from the left. Smalling headed it away, though, and the defender was soon congratulating Edin Dzeko for what was as cute a goal as Fernandes’s. Mkhitaryan’s clever pass found Pellegrini in space and despite Harry Maguire and Shaw trying to sandwich Dzeko, they could not stop him sliding home. The 35-year-old must adore this ground as this was his sixth strike in total here: four of these were previously in Manchester City livery, the other in that of Wolfsburg.
Cavani, meanwhile, was less lethal when Roger Ibañez passed straight to him. First Mirante saved a low attempt, then Smalling blocked his follow-up. Solskjær walked off for the break with work to do.
The second half was a test United passed supremely. They began with an equaliser that again illustrated how ruthless their attacking play can be. Pogba zipped a pass to Cavani and his lay-off went to the ever-lurking Fernandes. Once more, his return ball to Cavani was instant, and the Uruguayan smacked home for his 11th goal this season.
It came inside 50 minutes and moments later Cavani should have had a 12th. Pogba and Shaw combined before the left-back’s cross teed up the striker but his radar was awry.
United were back in high gear, though, with Pogba taking the contest to Roma. His next act was a reverse pass to the roving Scott McTominay, who crossed when he might have shot.
But Cavani made no mistake when he finally claimed a second of the night: the ball went from Shaw to Pogba to Fernandes to Wan-Bissaka, left to right, before the latter unloaded. Mirante saved but Cavani was there to drive in.
“The result is positive but it is not finished,” Pogba said. He has to say that but, surely, this tie is over.