Another scintillating Bruno Fernandes display swept Manchester United into the last 16 and on this showing they are serious contenders for a second Europa League crown in three years.
Fernandes’s vision gives United a new dimension and elevates his teammates. The playmaker scored a second penalty in two games and though naysayers may claim this was “only” Club Brugge, United have struggled against similar opponents under Ole Gunnar Solskjær. This was a performance that crushed the visitors and took United to seven matches unbeaten, a run that includes six clean sheets.
It left the manager pleased. “I’m very happy tonight,” he said . “When you score goals and play like this it gives more confidence.”
Of his star man Solskjær said: “Bruno is fit, in good form and we felt he was something we needed [buying him in January]and so it proves.”
Odion Ighalo made a first start owing to Anthony Martial’s muscle injury, while Scott McTominay ended a two-month absence as Solskjær made seven changes from the first leg.
The start was fast and furious. Juan Mata fired from 20-yards and forced Simon Mignolet to parry. The goalkeeper fired a long clearance into David Okereke’s path and though Harry Maguire was left flailing United scrambled clear.
United were further troubled when Maxim De Cuyper crossed from the left and Sergio Romero inadvertently punched the ball to Mats Rits who ballooned over.
The pace was relentless as the outstanding Fernandes. If he was left frustrated after a foray that allowed him to unload a shot only for Mignolet to keep the match goalless but the deadlock seemed unlikely to last.. It was soon broken in farcical circumstances. Daniel James’s shot was curling into the corner before Simon Deli flung himself to his left in what would have been a save-of-the season contender if he was a goalkeeper.
Serdar Gozubuyuk awarded the penalty for handball and showed the defender a red card but the comedy continued when the referee reviewed the incident on the pitch-side monitor. He confirmed the original decision and Fernandes, whose wait stretched past four minutes, converted. “I don’t know why the boy did it,” said Solskjær of Deli. “But that is not a fair attempt to stop a goalscoring opportunity.”
United’s control had tightened so they needed to turn their dominance into more goals. McTominay teed up James but he could not finish so Ighalo showed him how, courtesy of some fine Fernandes trickery. He twisted to the left of Brugge’s area and floated in a ball that reached Mata at the far post. His return pass was slide-rule precise for Ighalo, who bundled in a classic sniffer’s finish for his first goal for the club.
The striker pointed to the heavens and revealed a T-shirt that carried a tribute to his deceased sister. Solskjær said: “I think as a fellow [former United] striker I know how important that first goal is. He is there where it sometimes hurts and that goal, was sharp, on the six-yard line when Juan puts it there: that’s a natural striker.”
The on-loan man went close to a second when holding off Federico Ricca but Mignolet saved. He could do nothing about the third, though. Fernandes – again the creator – tee-ed up McTominay and from outside the area the midfielder passed the ball precisely into the bottom corner.
James made way for Tahith Chong for the second half in what was a golden chance for the 20-year-old to impress against 10-man opposition. His first contribution was to fall on his backside under pressure from Odilon Kossounou. When Mata was downed under the same player’s attention it was ruled a foul to the left of the D, but Fernandes spooned it wide.
United were in cruise control playing pinball football at will and serving notice that no one will want to draw them in the last 16. Chong came off worse in a collision with Mignolet but was able to continue and when Fernandes’s match ended after 65 minutes he wandered off to deserved applause. Chong grew into the match as illustrated by a run and cross that fell invitingly to Luke Shaw.
Mason Greenwood entered for the closing stages and though the 18-year-old is United’s top-scorer in the competition it was left to Fred to complete the rout, scoring twice in the last eight minutes.
Solskjær could joke about this. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be alive the next time he scored a goal,” he said of the Brazilian..
Next is Sunday’s trip to Everton. Solskajer is unsure if Martial can feature. “He tried [for] today – reported, had a fitness test this morning. It’s not a hamstring, it’s in and around the knee area,” the Norwegian said.