It was a night that demonstrated what Manchester United could become under Erik ten Hag and yet ultimately underlined how much work is still to be done.
Manchester United news, exclusives and analysisSign up
For an hour, the Dutchman’s side played with a swagger, fluidity and confidence that suggested the tie could be finished in Manchester. In truth it should have been but with one foot practically in the Europa League semi-finals, the contest turned on its head during a crazy six-minute period that exposed old wounds at Old Trafford.
There was charitable finishing from United and commendable persistence from Sevilla but above all, this was a tale of the fragility that lurks beneath the surface of Ten Hag’s best XI.
It had started so well. With just 13 minutes gone, Marcel Sabitzer swept home the opener after a neat through ball from Bruno Fernandes, who was found in space following excellent play from Anthony Martial.
The Austrian had his second of the night seven minutes later when he slotted past the onrushing Yassine Bounou. While the majority of the United team crowded the Austrian in the corner, Casemiro made sure his team-mates paid tribute to Martial by pointing at the Frenchman in the celebrations.
It was Martial that pounced on a lapse in the Sevilla defence, checked back into midfield and played a precise through ball for Sabitzer to double United’s lead on the night. It was a piece of play that simultaneously displayed the best of Martial and precisely what United have been missing in attack for practically the entire season.
It capped off a superb first half display from the Frenchman, who vindicated Ten Hag’s faith in him and demonstrated why, even against their better judgement at times, the club have stuck by Martial.
It was Martial’s first start in over three months and with Rashford missing, it became a de facto audition to replace the England star in his absence. In that sense, Martial passed the test and his link-up play – particularly with Fernandes – was exemplary.
But perhaps the biggest indication of Martial’s contribution came when he was removed on the hour-mark. It was then – when Ten Hag opted to make a triple substitution that saw Martial, Fernandes and Jadon Sancho come off – that the momentum of the game truly shifted. The Dutchman insisted he had little choice as Martial was making his first start after injury, while Fernandes and Sancho were both on yellow cards.
While that may have been the case, this was a rare mistake from Ten Hag, who
who inadvertently signalled to his players that the night was over and the result settled. While United continued to dominate, they attacked without purpose when in reality a third goal would have booked their place in the last four.
United had already lost Raphael Varane to injury at half-time but it was Luke Shaw’s replacement, Tyrell Malacia, that was to blame as Sevilla halved the aggregate score with six minutes left to play on the clock. The Dutchman should have easily dealt with a long ball over the top but he let it bounce and Jesus Navas’ cross deflected off Malacia, onto De Gea, and into the net.
The momentum had clearly shifted and United were soon without another of their key men when Lisandro Martinez collapsed to the ground with nobody around him. The Argentine had brought the ball out from defence but he was soon crowded by players from both sides as he lay with his head in his hands on the pitch.
Unable to continue, Martinez was carried off the pitch by two Sevilla players before leaving the field on a stretcher. While Ten Hag allayed fears that Martinez had snapped his Achilles, he’s ruled out of Sunday’s trip to Nottingham Forest.
The night went from bad to worse when Harry Maguire, who had come on for the injured Varane, inadvertently headed into his own goal after an effort from Youssef En-Nesyri.