He booked Manchester United’s place in the last four of the Europa League with an extra-time winner in the previous round and, on Thursday night, Marcus Rashford went one better when he edged the Reds a step closer to the final with a sublime free-kick to seal a 1-0 win over Celta Vigo.
United’s no.19 netted the 19th goal of his fledging Reds career – and his first outside the box – after curling home on 67 minutes. While the semi-final tie is far from over, leaving Spain with an away goal and a clean sheet is just the tonic needed ahead of next Thursday’s second leg at Old Trafford, with a place in Stockholm looming large.
Jose Mourinho welcomed back fit-again Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini, who is serving a domestic ban, to his midfield, while Eric Bailly started in defence despite limping out of the previous game against Swansea City. Sergio Romero kept his place in goal after starting both legs of the quarter-final.
For Celta Vigo, the match represented one of the biggest occasions in their history. It was the club’s first-ever experience of a European semi-final and going off the amount of statues, monuments and buildings adorned with Celta shirts, scarves and flags around town, it wasn’t just a huge night for the football team, but the city as a whole.
And it was the hosts who had the first opening of the night, 11 minutes in. Nemanja Radoja sent an inviting cross into the box where Daniel Wass found himself unmarked but he couldn’t direct his header on target.
Thereafter followed three excellent opportunities for United to steal a march in the tie and snatch a vital away goal, but, in Sergio Alvarez, the Reds found yet another goalkeeper in inspired form. After flinging himself high to his left to fingertip away a brilliant curling effort from Rashford, he then saved well from Henrikh Mkhitaryan who was put clear by the increasingly influential Pogba, 10 minutes from the break.
Four minutes later Jesse Lingard, who earlier was unlucky not to make contact with a Mkhitaryan cross which would have been a tap-in, saw an effort saved at close range as Alvarez continued to keep Mourinho’s men at bay.
Possession: Celta Vigo 53% United 47%
Shots: Celta Vigo 5 United 4
Shots on target: Celta Vigo 1 United 4
Corners: Celta Vigo 1 United 1
Having dominated the latter part of the first half, United breathed a sigh of relief early in the second after a couple of decent openings for the hosts. First, Wass glanced a header just wide of Romero’s far post although the Argentinian did appear to have it covered. The United keeper was then forced into a brilliant stop from a deflected and dipping Pione Sisto shot from the edge of the box with Romero acrobatically tipping it over his bar as Estadio de Balaidos threatened to explode.
On 67 minutes, it was a little pocket of fans decked out in red that raised the decibel level as Rashford made his mark. And how. After winning a free-kick 25 yards out, it appeared Daley Blind would take the set-piece, but Rashford surprised Celta and stepped up to curl in a quite superb right-footed effort into the far corner. Cue delirious scenes high in the corner of the stadium in the away end which was saluted by Mourinho as he pumped his fist on the touchline in celebration.
Wass guided a volley off target six minutes later before Lingard lashed a half-volley wide soon after. They proved to be the last of the opportunities as United held firm to take home an excellent result. The Reds will know it could have been more, but Rashford has ensured part one of the job is complete with Mourinho’s men just 90 minutes away from a first Europa League final. Roll on next Thursday.
Possession: Celta Vigo 58% United 42%
Shots: Celta Vigo 9 United 10
Shots on target: Celta Vigo 2 United 5
Corners: Celta Vigo 4 United 4
Celta Vigo: Alvarez, Mallo (c) (Beauvue 90), Cabral, Roncaglia, Jonny, Wass (Jozabed 74), Radoja, Hernandez, Aspas, Sisto, Guidetti.
Subs not used: Villar, Fontas, Diaz, Bondonga, Sergi Gomez.
United: Romero, Valencia (c), Bailly, Blind, Darmian; Herrera, Fellaini; Lingard, Pogba, Mkhitaryan (Young 78; Smalling 90); Rashford (Martial 80).
Subs not used: De Gea, Carrick, Mata, Rooney.
Booked: Fellaini, Pogba