Date: 21st February 2018
Venue: Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán
World class is an over used term in football and maybe with Paul Pogba that has been the case but there is no doubt that Manchester United have at least one player worthy of that status as goalkeeper David De Gea once again demonstrated his importance as he kept his team in this Champions League tie.
Two superb saves from headers, the second breathtaking, at the end of the first half denied Sevilla who had countless other opportunities against an at times over-run United side who nevertheless go into the second leg of this last-16 encounter on March 13 as favourites to progress into the quarter-finals.
Or maybe not if they play like this because for all of Jose Mourinho’s post-match protestations about his team being in control that was simply not the case while it is dispiriting that, once more, the United manager’s pre-occupation was to try and stop the opposition rather than impose him team on them.
The visitors looked pedestrian, conservative, restrained; a team lacking in verve. It was a far cry, for example, from the way Liverpool destroyed Porto away last week. And surely United cannot keep relying on De Gea?
In fact Mourinho congratulated himself on how his midfield had controlled the Sevilla playmaker Ever Banega – not quite true – and he lauded his decision to field Scott McTominay from the start, and as competently as the promising young Scot did perform, he is an essentially destructive, rather than constructive, player.
On his return from illness Pogba was dropped, and that obviously caused quite a stir, but he had to be called on after just 18 minutes when Ander Herrera pulled up injured as he attempted a back-heel – much to Mourinho’s frustration.
Pogba’s contribution was later distilled by his manager into one about working hard for the team – not quite effusive praise – while Mourinho also launched himself into an argument that all players have to work hard, and not being free spirits, when he was asked an innocuous question about Alexis Sanchez.
Sanchez was far from his best on his return to Champions League football following his January move from Arsenal and was withdrawn before the end. And neither was Pogba much better. This was hugely disappointing.
United’s alleged control was arguable for De Gea made eight saves in all from 25 attempts at goal by Sevilla – the most for a United goalkeeper in a Champions League game since Edwin van der Sar versus Barcelona in May 2011.
And Sevilla, fifth in La Liga, are no Barcelona of that or even this vintage. Whatever their attacking intent and desire to score under their new head coach Vincenzo Montella for whom this was only a second match in this competition against Mourinho’s 140 games.
And yet United’s display smacked of a performance from a team set out by a manager more concerned about stopping the opposition than winning the game.
But Mourinho is a master of the knockout competitions, or at least going deep into them, and will argue this kind of occasion is about managing the two matches. And not just the one. Get through this tie and his approach worked.
But United were flat. They were underwhelming. Except for De Gea who was elevated to such an imposing status that it seemed to get into the heads of the Sevilla players who, after his two saves just before half-time, continued to play well, attack well but snatched at chances. The closer to De Gea they got, in fact, the less sure they became. They did not look like they believed they could beat him. He got bigger, the goal got smaller.
The first save was smart enough as De Gea flicked a powerful header from Steven Nzonzi over the bar, after the midfielder had reached an acrobatic overhead kick back across the penalty area by the lively striker, Luis Muriel. And then De Gea made that incredible save from Muriel – soon after mix-up between the goalkeeper and defender Victor Lindelof – as the forward was picked out unmarked by Jesus Navas with a cross from the right.
As Muriel reached the ball he seemed certain to plant his header, from no more than six yards, into the net but De Gea shot out an arm to block. It needed a double-take to believe what had happened. Muriel pressed his head against the post in disbelief for several seconds. When the half-time whistle blew soon after both Muriel and his team-mate Gabriel Mercado even took time to shake De Gea’s hand before he walked down the tunnel.
There were more saves, relatively routine ones, from De Gea who turned away a skidding shot from Muriel, in the first half, and from Joaquin Correa after he jinked in from the right, and from Correa again as he attempted to bend the ball into the corner. But after his amazing save from Muriel it seemed Sevilla believed they had to find the precise finish and
Clement Lenglet, Franco Vazquez and Muriel, again, were wasteful as they attempted that. It was summed up when Muriel crossed towards the far post and Correa appeared to have the chance to head home but was clearly mindful of De Gea scampering across and tried for too much power. Again it sailed over the bar.
And what about Romelu Lukaku, United’s other big name? The striker was picked out by Sanchez with a clever lofted ball through, but despite having time and space he skied his volley high over the target. Then in the second half he controlled the ball with an arm before firing it into the net. It was rightly ruled out. And that was it. He did little else.
In fact United only had a single shot on target and that was from McTominay, a first-time effort from outside the area, that was pushed away by goalkeeper Sergio Rico.
Mourinho argued that the space opened up for United, but he must have been watching a different game. In this one he was indebted to Sevilla’s profligacy and the brilliance of De Gea.
Not the most memorable of European nights. Sevilla are extremely medium, Man Utd didn’t have enough to take anything home with them. There’s something in Mourinho’s team that doesn’t quite click and this was another disjointed performance, albeit one that has produced the 0-0 he would have wanted.
“Bad game of football, a difficult watch to be honest. Job done for United, I think they’ll be comfortable at Old Trafford.”