Fifth time lucky. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has finally broken his unhappy habit of falling short in semi-finals, with Manchester United progressing past Roma to reach the Europa League showpiece later this month, despite falling to a 3-2 defeat at the Stadio Olimpico on the night.
In truth, it was never in doubt that United’s last four hoodoo would end after last week’s emphatic 6-2 first leg win at Old Trafford, and though a first final in five years will not ease the tension around the club following the weekend’s protests against the Glazer ownership, Edinson Cavani’s two goals and David de Gea’s heroics to secure their place were no less welcome.
This 8-5 win on aggregate makes it likely that if Jose Mourinho is involved in European competition next season, he will be managing in Uefa’s inaugural Conference League at best. His successor at Old Trafford, meanwhile, will be back in the Champions League and may have a major honour to his name.
Arsenal’s conquerors Villarreal await in three weeks’ time, when Solskjaer’s wait for silverware could finally come to an end. Another major milestone was reached with this win, however. The United manager has had to face many questions regarding their semi-final struggles over the past year or so. Talk of a ‘curse’ or ‘mental block’ will largely be forgotten now.
Still, there were a couple of wobbles. De Gea strengthened his case to start the Gdansk final with a reminder of his natural, instinctive shot-stopping abilities. There was a period after Roma’s second goal through Bryan Cristante that the Serie A side threatened to mount a comeback to rival that remarkable turnaround against Barcelona three years ago.
Edin Dzeko and Lorenzo Pellegrini were the only survivors of those nights, though, and last week’s defeat was heavier still. So heavy, in fact, it hastened the announcement of manager Paulo Fonseca’s exit. After their first leg humblind, all he and his players could hope to do was save face. They achieved that, at least.
If not for De Gea’s supernatural reflexes – still his greatest and most enduring attribute – Roma might have made an early dint in the four-goal margin. There was a hint of handball about Gianluca Mancini’s half-volley at close range but the United goalkeeper was not to know and still pulled a remarkable reaction save.
De Gea was called into action again when Luke Shaw was caught napping by Rick Karsdrop, beating away the Roma full-back’s inviting cross with his feet. Shortly after the half hour mark, a low Pellegrini strike from inside the penalty area also had to be repelled and Mancini went close with a free header a minute.
It was hardly all one way traffic, though. Given their advantage, United were content to play predominantly on the counter-attack and, like in the first leg, Cavani relished having so much space to move and run into. A third man run by Fred, of all people, sent United away and unleashed the Uruguayan, whose shot was too powerful for Antonio Mirante to hold.
Five goals ahead, Solskjaer felt as though he was in a strong enough position to make changes. He was right, but the half time introductions of Brandon Williams and Alex Telles precipitated Roma’s best spell as both substitutes struggled to deal with their threat in wide areas.
Dzeko equalised, scoring the ninth goal of his career against United with a downward header, directing Pedro’s cross past De Gea. Three minutes later, Fred was caught being too clever in possession on the edge of his own box and Cristante first-time shot was hit too well to stay out.
A madcap minute followed where, if not for De Gea, United could suddenly have crumbled. Two point-blank saves, the first from Dzeko and the second from Pedro, were followed by one that the Spaniard knew much less about. Mkhitaryan’s attempt hit the inside of De Gea’s legs, crawled along the goal-line and was mercifully cleared.
United desperately needed to bring the game back under control. Nemanja Matic’s introduction helped but not as much as Cavani’s second of the night, which began with a perfectly-timed run to meet Bruno Fernandes’ deep cross and ended with another brilliant downward header.
That, really, should have been that from United’s perspective but they could not manage the closing stages perfectly. Nicola Zalewski’s was a touch fortunate to score with his far-post volley in fairness, bouncing in off Telles’ shins. It was too late for Roma to mount any serious comeback, though, and during a tumultuous week off-the-pitch, United are at least enjoying success on it.