Manchester United secured an away win against Celta Vigo in the first leg of the Europa League semi-final thanks to a superb free-kick from Marcus Rashford.
The Englishman has stepped up in recent weeks and has taken his opportunity after the injury suffered by Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
It was never going to be a classic, but Jose Mourinho’s side delivered a professional performance and earned a good away result.
They will go into the second leg with confidence that they can qualify for the final in Stockholm.
Here are three things that we learnt in Spain…
Manchester United are two matches away from the Champions League
The Europa League has received an unfair reputation in England and it hasn’t been taken as seriously as a result.
Manchester United didn’t consider it a priority at the beginning of the season and Mourinho made that clear.
However, they have struggled to earn wins in the Premier League and this competition has emerged as their best chance of reaching the Champions League.
The Red Devils need to be in Europe’s premier competition to continue their development under Mourinho.
This was a difficult tie for United as Celta Vigo have an exciting front three and have shown already in this competition that they can score goals.
However, Mourinho approached the tie in the right way and managed to finish the first leg in a commanding position. If they finish the job off next week, United would go into the final as favourites.
It is shaping up to be a fascinating final as it looks like it will be Manchester United against Ajax. These are two massive clubs in the history of European football and it would be an occasion that would raise the profile of the competition.
There are still two matches to play before that stage and it is crucial that neither side get complacent.
Marcus Rashford is proving his worth to Jose Mourinho
Throughout his managerial career, Jose Mourinho hasn’t had a great track record with young players and many doubted whether he would get the best out of Marcus Rashford.
The United boss didn’t use the teenager a lot at the beginning of the season and has since utilised him as an impact sub. He has predominantly been used as a winger, with Ibrahimovic being the favoured striker at Old Trafford.
However, the injury to the Swede has given an opportunity to the academy graduate and he is making the most of it.
On Thursday, Rashford was the match-winner as he scored a brilliant free kick to separate the two teams. It was an example of his technical ability and his impressive mentality, as he stepped up at a crucial time of the game.
Given that Paul Pogba was on the pitch, it was a surprise that the 19-year-old was allowed to take the free kick, but he took the chance to show what he could do.
His intelligent movement caused the La Liga side problems all evening and was reliable in possession, finishing the match with 86% pass accuracy, which included two key passes.
Manchester United have a crucial month ahead and their teenage striker has a huge part to play in that.
Paul Pogba showed what United have been missing in recent matches
The world’s most expensive player has been widely criticised in the media this season, but he is crucial to the way that Manchester United play and that has been evident in recent matches. He returned from injury on Thursday and United instantly looked better in the attacking half.
Pogba has the ability to play defence-splitting forward passes and United have missed that. The Frenchman was excellent in Spain, as he was central to everything that was good about United in possession. He completed 82% of his passes and made one key pass during the match.
Although Manchester United haven’t still haven’t got the best from Pogba, he remains one of the best midfielders in the world. It is clear on the pitch that he is a level above everyone else and Mourinho will be hoping to make the right additions this summer to get even more out of his star midfielder.
His ability to carry the ball makes him great to watch in transition and he completed five dribbles on Thursday, which was more than anyone else on the pitch. It is great for United to have him back and they will be hoping that he can remain fit for the run-in.
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Victory in Milan, but is this another false dawn for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger?
Arsenal were triumphant in Milan despite their recent miserable form.
Arsenal ended their losing run of four matches with an excellent performance away to AC Milan in the Europa League. This competition has the potential to save the Gunners season and the commitment from every player suggested that they want to go all the way.
They were coming up against a team full of confidence under Gennaro Gattuso. Milan hadn’t lost a match since the end of December. The Serie A club hadn’t conceded a goal in six and had won five of those inside ninety minutes.
These sides came into this fixture in remarkably different form, but football is played on grass and not on paper.
Despite Milan having more attempts, it was Arsenal who created the better chances. They had a couple of half-chances early on before the opening goal.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan has had a hot and cold start to life in a Gunners’ shirt, but he was one of the best players on the pitch in Italy. His goal was emphatically taken as he drove the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma.
It is important to capitalise when you are on top, especially away from home in European competitions and Arsenal did just that. As the first-half progressed, they continued to create the better opportunities. Both Danny Welbeck and Mkhitaryan had good chances to double the visitors’ lead, but they were squandered.
In stoppage-time of half-time, Arsenal scored a second to give them a commanding lead in the tie. It was a great move from the team and Mesut Ozil found Aaron Ramsey who coolly rounded Donnarumma before putting the ball into the net.
The first-half performance from Arsenal was one of the best that supporters have seen this season. They were better all over the pitch and showed the work rate that they had lacked in previous weeks. Milan pushed in the second half, but they couldn’t penetrate the Gunners’ defence.
Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi were both excellent. Arsene Wenger will be hoping that both are returning to their best after some uncharacteristic errors in previous matches. The centre-back pairing made eight ball recoveries and were always in the right position on Thursday.
Patrick Cutrone is a teenager with a big future, but the young striker had no luck out of the Arsenal defence and that will encourage the manager.
Another player to emerge with credit is Danny Welbeck. The ineligibility of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the injury of Alexandre Lacazette means that the Englishman started the game up front for Arsenal. It was a huge opportunity for him after being pushed down the pecking order at the club and he took it with both hands.
The Englishman worked tirelessly and caused problems with his movement.
Although his final product wasn’t great, he was a constant threat and led the defensive effort from the front. Welbeck will never be a leading Premier League striker, but he is effective in matches such as this one. He deserves more opportunities during the run-in.
It would be too soon to get carried away for Arsenal fans. There are still questions regarding Arsene Wenger and the work rate of the players, but this was an excellent performance that finally provides the club with positive momentum. They have had a miserable few weeks and the supporters can get excited about their team once again.
When the draw was made, a lot of supporters checked their expectations when it came to the Europa League. Milan were the overwhelming favourites, but Arsenal have taken a dominant position in the tie and should be able to finish the job in London.
If they can do that, they will move into the quarter-final stage. Although it will be difficult to win it, they will have as good a chance as any.
There have been many false dawns for Arsenal in recent years and this could be another one. That said, it takes enormous character to go away to a huge stadium like the San Siro after a poor run of form and win comfortably.
Considering the criticism that they have had for their lack of desire, few would have thought the Gunners to be capable of a result like this.
It is now up to Wenger to prove that he can get this level of effort and performance out of his players on a regular basis. The Frenchman remains in a difficult position with no margin for error. If he is going to keep his job, he needs to finish the season strongly and win the Europa League.
It won’t be an easy challenge, but this performance and result will give him hope that he can upset the odds to claim his first European trophy.
Everton’s 4-1 defeat to Southampton adds to growing problems at Goodison Park
Everton’s 4-1 defeat to Southampton this Sunday left them just two points above the relegation zone in a season that is going from bad to worse for the Toffees. The four goals conceded by David Unsworth’s side meant they have now let in 28 goals from just 13 matches.
Although Gylfi Sigurdsson’s long range strike was a positive for Everton, there was little else to write home about in a game that Southampton dominated.
It has been well documented that the Toffees’ summer recruitment has been a big reason behind their lack of success, with insufficient signings in key areas. One of those areas was highlighted profoundly on Sunday, with Leighton Baines going off with a knee injury in the first half.
Everton did not have another natural left-back in the match-day squad, so centre back Ashley Williams was brought on to replace the Englishman, with Aaron Lennon shifted into a wing-back role.
Lennon is not a natural in that position and is far more effective further forward and, somewhat predictably, two Southampton goals originated from his side.
Although this defeat comes as a fresh blow to Unsworth, it is the managerial uncertainty surrounding the club that is causing Everton major issues.
Ronald Koeman was sacked by chairman Farhad Mohsiri nearly five weeks ago now, and the club still seem no closer to appointing his successor.
Martin O’Neill was touted as the leading favourite for the vacany earlier this week, but whether he would be tempted into returning to club football after a stint with Republic of Ireland remains to be seen.
Marco Silva has also been approached, with Everton rumoured to be willing to pay £20 million in compensation to prize him away from Watford, according to the Hertfordshire Mercury.
Nonetheless, the Hornets have firmly stated that they will not allow their manager to take the reins at Goodison Park.
Unsworth was put under more pressure on Thursday, with Everton losing 5-1 to Italian side Atalanta, their heaviest home loss in Europe.
It is difficult to blame the former Sheffield United defender for most of his side’s troubles currently, with Everton’s players clearly shot of confidence.
He has made some major changes to the club’s personnel, switching from the winger-less system that Koeman employed, while bringing Aaron Lennon, Kevin Mirallas and Sandro Ramirez back to the first team.
He has also given promising full-back Jonjoe Kenny a run in the team ahead of the under-performing Cuco Martina.
It can also be argued that Everton are missing the experience and quality of long-term absentees Seamus Coleman, Ross Barkley and Yannick Bolasie – three players who would surely be some of the first names on the team sheet at Goodison Park.
However, all of the players above were injured during the summer, a window in which Everton spent nearly £200 million on players.
Gylfi Sigurdsson has shown glimpses of his quality, scoring an excellent goal against Southampton, and Jordan Pickford has performed as well as could be expected, but many other Everton signings have taken time to settle into the side.
Davy Klaassen, signed from Ajax for £23.6 million, and Martina did not make it into the match day squad against Southampton. Meanwhile, Sandro had struggled until his goal against Atalanta on Thursday.
Wayne Rooney, who is the Toffees’ 2nd top scorer, has even been dropped to the bench in recent weeks.
Overall, Everton desperately need a managerial appointment to bring stability and confidence to a squad that is currently sliding towards the Premier League relegation zone.
Although Toffees fans are against the appointment, Sam Allardyce could provide the self-belief necessary to steer the club clear of the drop.
He is renowned as a specialist in helping teams survive, but it is worth remembering the success he had in charge of Bolton, getting to the last 16 of the 2005/06 UEFA Cup and coming within one place of qualifying for the Champions League during his final season in charge of the Trotters.
Regardless of who does take over at Goodison, the key for Everton is getting a manager into the club ahead of January and a transfer window that could be crucial in defining the club’s season.
Arsenal’s Europa League group – who are their opponents?
For the first time in over two decades – and for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s tenure in north London – Arsenal will be playing their European football on Thursday nights in the Europa League.
Failure to finish in the Premier League top-four has left the Gunners fighting it out in second-tier competition, yet few will bet against them emulating rivals Manchester United and going all the way.
A favourable draw has merely compounded their position as favourites, with Wenger’s men pitted in Group H against BATE Borisov, German outfit FC Koln and Serbian side Red Star Belgrade.
To save you from having to Google their opponents – a la Tottenham’s Danny Rose – The Boot Room has taken a look at the three teams that stand between Arsenal and a spot in the Europa League knockout stage.
Perhaps the toughest side that Arsenal will face during the group stages, BATE Borisov have Champions League pedigree and last featured in 2015/16, facing then reigning champions Barcelona.
On that occasion they held a good account for themselves, missing out on the knock-out stages by a single point after beating Italian side Roma and earning a point against Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen.
On a domestic level they have dominated the Belarus league in recent times – winning the previous eleven titles – although they are struggling this season, sitting in third place after 19 matches, to date.
A Champions League qualifier defeat to Slavia Prague of the Czech Republic over two legs will hardly leave Wenger – or Arsenal fans – quaking in their boots when they meet in the group stages.
The Bundesliga side may be embarking on European football for the first time since the 1992/93 season but they certainly have previous in this competition, ending runners-up in 1985/86 edition.
On their day they can be a dangerous side – last season they held Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund to away draws in the league – and they will look to stifle Arsenal’s attacking style of play.
But with their main-man Anthony Modeste, who scored 25 goals in the Bundesliga, leaving for a lucrative deal in the Chinese Super League the Germans shouldn’t prove to be much of an obstacle.
Red Star Belgrade
Completing the line-up for Arsenal’s group is Serbian outfit Red Star Belgrade, a side that have reached the group stage of European competition for the first time since the UEFA Cup in 2007/08.
To make it to here they’ve already beaten Floriana of Malta, Irtysh Pavlador of Kazakhstan, Sparta Prague of the Czech Republic and Russia’s Kuban Krasnodar so they’re already well-versed this year.
Red Star – the lesser known side of Serbia’s capital alongside Partizan Belgrade – were narrowly pipped to their domestic title last year by their rivals but, on their day at home, they’re a tough side.
The two sides have actually met in Europe before, way back in 1978 when the north London side actually lost 2-1 in the last-16 of the UEFA Cup, and revenge will no doubt be on the cards this year.
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