Goals from Marcus Rashford, Antony, Bruno Fernandes and Wout Weghorst gave Manchester United a domineering win over Real Betis on Thursday night in the Europa League round of sixteen tie, heading into the second leg with a 4-1 lead.
Reds fans were expecting a response from their side following the club’s worst defeat in 92 years last Sunday, and the response was exactly what it needed to be from Erik ten Hag’s men.
Wout Weghorst cleverly turned the ball in with his chest in the opening minutes of the game following Fred’s assist, but the latter was correctly deemed to have been offside prior to his cross.
It did not matter, however, as Marcus Rashford went on to lash the ball into the roof of the net in the 5th minute to give the home side the lead. The ball fell kindly to the forward after Bruno Fernandes’ cross was only half cleared before he took a touch to take the ball out of his feet and belt it beyond a helpless Claudio Bravo from the right-hand side of the area.
Los Verdiblancos withstood the momentum following Rashford’s opener and managed to find an equaliser not long after the half-hour mark, courtesy of Ayoze Perez. The Leicester City loanee took the ball down on the right of the box before drilling a delightful effort across the face of the goal and into the far bottom corner. The goal was controversial given an evident handball a matter of seconds before Perez scored, but VAR somehow deemed it to be fine.
Former Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini almost watched his side take the lead not long before half-time when a clumsy pass out the back from David De Gea led to Perez hitting the post faintly, but The Reds survived the scare.
Man United started the second half as they did the first with a goal to take the lead. Antony produced a trademark finish within seven minutes of the game getting back underway after cutting in onto his left foot; Bravo could only stand and stare as the ball floated elegantly into the top corner.
The advantage was soon extended when Luke Shaw’s 58th-minute corner was turned home by a powerful Fernandes header. The Portuguese lost his marker and made strong contact with the ball at the near post and, whilst goalkeeper got a hand to it, the sheer force of the header forced it in.
Three became four in the 82nd minute. Substitute Facundo Pellistri showed great improvisation to get a cross in from the right-hand side after an awkward direct pass from the corner. The Uruguayan found fellow substitute Scott McTominay, whose saved effort fell to Weghorst as the Dutchman jabbed it home to score just his second goal for the club since his arrival and his first at The Theatre of Dreams. It evidently meant a lot to him as he wheeled away in celebration.
Final Score: Manchester United 4-1 Real Betis (Rashford 5’, Antony 51’, Fernandes 58’, Weghorst 82’) (Perez 32’)
Man of the match
Bruno Fernandes has been wrongly targeted in the mainstream media left, right and centre in the last few days after he supposedly asked to be replaced at Anfield late on, which has since been proven to be a load of rubbish, and he gave the perfect response to his critics in the 4-1 win.
The 28-year-old forced the clearance that led to Rashford smashing in the opening goal and then went on to provide an assist for Antony for the second. He bagged the third himself just minutes after that.
Aside from those obvious contributions, the Portuguese put in a good performance in all areas of the pitch. He stayed on for the whole ninety minutes as captain- again proving his relentless fitness levels- and was barking orders, pushing the team forward and operating efficiently in all areas of the midfield to help his side to victory.
Some fans do not like Fernandes’ petulance and theatrics, and perhaps rightfully so in a lot of the instances he shows it in, but nobody can dispute his effort levels and desire to win. In his time as captain this season, you would struggle to name even five times United have lost whilst he has worn the armband, and that is commendable whether you like the man or not; the players clearly respect him, and so does Ten Hag.
The bigger picture
It was a professional response from the players after what Ten Hag described as an “unprofessional” performance last weekend against Liverpool.
Players such as Antony and Fernandes both scored quality goals after being under heavy criticism in recent days, Rashford bagged his 26th goal of his best scoring season (and what a hit it was), and you cannot forget Weghorst, who claimed a much-deserved goal after weeks of putting in a shift for the team and sacrificing his own goalscoring opportunities for the betterment of those around him up front.
Antony and Weghorst could have each had a hattrick, in truth. It was a morale-boosting performance and victory that was very much needed as United look to rediscover that relentless form they have shown post-World Cup.
In the context of the competition, fans could not have asked for much more in the first leg. United can confidently take the 4-1 lead from Old Trafford into the second leg over in Seville at the Estadio Benito Villamarin. It would take an almighty comeback from Betis to resurrect their hopes of progressing into the quarter-finals of the Europa League.
Whilst it is unlikely that Ten Hag will ring wholesale changes to his starting eleven in the away leg, there is definitely an opportunity to rest and rotate given the three-goal advantage. Perhaps it could be a case of going strong and ringing the changes at half-time, just to be on the safe side. It would be a surprise if he plays his very best team, though.
De Gea had a shaky performance against Betis, more to do with his playing out from the back rather than his shot-stopping. Pellistri, on the other hand, shined in his cameo against the Spanish outfit, having a big part to play in the fourth goal that more or less wrapped up the tie. He is beginning to knock on the door for a start, some fans think.
Finally, Marcel Sabitzer was not in the squad on Thursday night. Fans will hope that there is nothing to worry about in relation to his fitness given the lack of midfield depth that United have, and the quality within it.
What is next?
Next up for Ten Hag and United is Southampton on Sunday 12th March in the Premier League at Old Trafford, kicking off at 14:00 (BST).
After that, United play Real Betis in the second leg of the Europa League round of sixteen tie, taking place at the Estadio Benito Villamarin at 17:45 (BST) on Thursday 16th March.