Real Betis 0-1 Man Utd (Rashford 55′) – Man Utd advance 5-1 on aggregate
ESTADIO BENITO VILLAMARIN — One sprinkle of Marcus Rashford stardust was enough to straighten out an awkward night for Manchester United. Too much bad Fred, a dozy Wout Weghorst and an initially misfiring Rashford is not good for the digestion.
It was never a case of a 4-1 first-leg advantage being a dangerous scoreline, more a return of the old habits and ill-discipline that has largely disappeared under Erik ten Hag. It took 54 minutes for United to produce a hint of the hypnotic quality that has become a feature under Ten Hag, only for Rashford to forget he was Marcus Rashford.
The combination with Bruno Fernandes was typically slick leaving Rashford through on the keeper. The mind’s eye had already computed a successful outcome, so to see the ball spoon over chilled the bones. Rashford floundered via a cluster of near misses, almost dribbles and failed flicks all night.
The graceful fluency that had been the hallmark of his season was somehow out of range. Well, it was until the 55th minute, the point at which he collected a pass from Casemiro 25 yards out. Three touches later the ball was in the back of the net, a swerving bullet of a shot despatched into the bottom corner.
Game over. Rashford was pulled five minutes later. In his stead Jadon Sancho and Anthony Elanga, on for Fernandes, lit up the last half-hour to erase the memory of what had come before and remind us that Ten Hag’s understanding of substitutes might just be his superpower.
In conditions somewhat warmer than the reverse fixture a week ago, 25 degrees warmer to be precise, the game set out like a summer friendly. Short sleeves, easy pace, sun setting. Make mine a Sangria please.
Then a chance to Betis, then another. There is a reason this stadium does not have a roof, and the absence of rain in this part of Andalucia is not it. A concrete bowl with the sensibilities of a mosh pit reverberates to the heaving sound of bodies bouncing about in a bacchanal trance. The acoustics are overwhelming.
United survived the cacophony because the profligacy of the Betis strikers was marginally more of a factor than the incompetence of their defending. Ten Hag can talk all he likes about habits and principles but United can be too easily shoved out of shape. At its worst this has terrible consequences. Luckily for United there is a sign above the entrance to the pitch that says ‘This Isn’t Anfield’.
Take yourself back to your school days and those free-for-alls in the school yard when everybody ran after the ball in febrile packs. The passing was awful and the tackles were delivered by divine wind. Ten Hag watched the chaos unfold like a teacher on lunch duty, shaking his head and occasionally taking his notebook from his back pocket to enter a name for detention.
Though David de Gea saved United with one of his trademark, starfish saves dashing off his line after half an hour, he was his usual cumbersome self with the ball at his feet. And no, Erik, the material construction of the ball has nothing to do with it. What is undeniable is the appalling frequency with which De Gea’s kicking results in turnover ball.
The first half ended on a suitably hapless note when a shot from Facundo Pellestri, invited big Wout to lunge forward in the vain hope of getting a touch. The ball escaped even his telescopic legs and rebounded off a post.
The astounding job Ten Hag has done with this group spares him the push back he is due for his persistence with Weghorst, who is in the anti-Haaland category of centre forward, an awkward lump with a grim first touch, no pace and barely a goal.
He does however cover a lot of ground, which creates the illusion of usefulness. Maybe 90 minutes of him dulled the senses of Betis. In the end it was a canter for United.