Manchester United overcame a tension-filled start to cruise through to the last 16 of the Europa League with a 5-1 victory over Midtjylland at Old Trafford to ensure a 6-3 aggregate win. The Premier League giants had gone into the Round-of-32 second leg under huge pressure after a 2-1 defeat in Denmark left their hopes, and manager Louis van Gaal’s future, hanging by a thread.
When they went 1-0 down to a superb Pione Sisto goal after 27 minutes, their hole became deeper still. Yet United responded superbly with what transformed into one of their best performances of a troubled season. Memphis Depay was the inspiration, creating an own goal from Nikolay Bodurov to level up the score on the night and adding a well-earned fifth to put the seal on the win late on.
But the night will be most remembered for a brace from 18-year-old debutant Marcus Rashford, who had only been thrust into the starting lineup after an injury in the warm-up to Anthony Martial. That double put United in the driving seat and rendered a penalty miss from Juan Mata irrelevant before Ander Herrera later successfully fired home from 12 yards.
Such a joyous ending seemed inconceivable given Manchester United’s troubled state coming into the fixture. A loss in Denmark last week had only thrust further pressure upon Van Gaal, who may not have been able to survive being ousted from a second European competition in the space of two-and-a-half months, and by a club that was only formed in 1999 to boot.
The manager’s mood will not have been aided by an ever-growing list of injuries. With the likes of Wayne Rooney, David de Gea and Chris Smalling already ruled out, Martial’s name then had to be removed from the starting lineup at the last moment after pulling up hurt in the warm-up. If he didn’t already, Van Gaal will have surely felt that events were conspiring against him when, despite his team controlling proceedings early on, Midtjylland went in front. Just as in Denmark, it was Sisto who bagged the opening goal, again showing his ability with a fine run and finish.
But, perhaps critically, United fired back almost instantly. Memphis has endured a hugely disappointing first season at Old Trafford following his move from PSV Eindhoven. And, had it not been for the scale of United’s injury problems, he likely would not have been in the starting lineup on Thursday.
Yet he produced his best performance in a Manchester United shirt, and one that demonstrated exactly why the club was so excited to bring him in last summer. Every time he got the ball he tormented the Midtjylland defense. That threat paid dividends when gliding down the left and putting a teasing ball across the face of goal that tempted Bodurov to stick out a leg and turn the ball into his own net.
The tension had far from abated, though. And when Morgan Schneiderlin struck a post and Mata’s tame penalty was saved by Mikkel Andersen before halftime it seemed that it still might be an inglorious night in Manchester United’s rich European history.
Instead, a player who even many Manchester United fans will not have heard of before Thursday night decisively turned the tide. The goal that leveled up the tie on aggregate arrived just past the hour mark when Mata rescued a deep cross to turn the ball back from the byline and into the path of Rashford to fire home from eight yards.
Another inexperienced player thrust unexpectedly into the United first team, Guillermo Varela, had been involved in that strike and was at the heart of the goal that put the home side in front in the tie for the first time. After fine skill from the Uruguayan full-back to create space for a dangerous cross, Rashford arrived right on the spot to prompt his second joyous celebration of a dream debut.
There was to be no reprieve for a Midtjylland side that were outclassed on the night. Herrera emphatically succeeded where Mata had failed from the penalty spot before Memphis got the goal his performance richly deserved.
For Van Gaal, the result and performance will provide a rare night where he can sit back and relax at questions over the performance of his team rather than the doubts over his future. The test on Sunday against Arsenal, though, promises to be of a different level entirely.