Pogba finds his central role at Man Utd
Contrary to what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may have declared after Manchester United’s astonishing demolition of Roma, it is surely job done.
United will travel to Rome not only with possession of a four-goal lead but the comforting knowledge that they are a class above their opponents. And perhaps more than one.
The caution to any hyperbole about United’s performance must be the recognition of their opponents’ limitations. Roma are not an especially good side, as betrayed by their modest position in the Serie A table. But, all the same, this was an especially good United display, scoring five goals without reply in a devastating 45-minute blitz. No matter the opponents, that is some going and some doing.
- Man Utd 6-2 Roma – Match report
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For Solskjaer, the victory surely marks the end of his semi-final hoodoo. And the United boss can take credit for refusing to panic at the interval when his side found themselves 2-1 down. The temptation must have been to introduce Mason Greenwood there and then from the bench. But the United boss held his nerve and his reward was emphatic.
While there were other contenders for focus, but as United tore apart Roma it was difficult to look beyond Paul Pogba’s role in the bedlam. Body language is easily mistranslated but the Frenchman not only looked the part against Roma but he looked the part in this United team.
A few months ago, it seemed a racing certainty he would leave Old Trafford this summer. Right now, it would be a shock if he did. A front three of Pogba, Cavani and Marcus Rashford is, being ultra-critical, perhaps devoid of outright pace. But it worked here to wonderous effect, just as it did a few weeks ago at Tottenham. Best of all, and even though it denies him a central position, it is giving Pogba the platform to take centre stage; he has never looked better in a United shirt.
Arsenal show resilience, but need more flair in second leg
Sixty minutes into Thursday’s first leg, Arsenal were on a one-way train out of the Europa League. Some questionable defending had seen them fall 2-0 behind inside half an hour and Dani Ceballos had been sent off, already avoiding a second yellow earlier in the half.
But after having had a penalty chalked off in the first half for handball, Arsenal were awarded a second in the 71st minute after Manu Trigueros caught Bukayo Saka from behind. Nicolas Pepe dispatched it confidently down the middle – he has now been directly involved in more Europa League goals this season than any other player (10; six goals, four assists).
- Villarreal 2-1 Arsenal – Match report
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A familiar face was then given his marching orders for Villarreal, when former Tottenham midfielder Etienne Capoue was shown a second yellow card while he was stretchered off, injured while making a late challenge on Bukayo Sako. Credit too must go to Bernd Leno for a string of vital saves late in the game, showing no ill-effects of his howler against Everton last Friday.
⭐ Arsenal's Nicolas Pepe has been directly involved in more #UEL goals this season than any other player (10)
Make no mistake about it – Arsenal showed wonderful resilience to come back from repeated blows at La Ceramica. In other seasons – perhaps under Villarreal manager Unai Emery – Arsenal would have retreated, but Pepe’s penalty could be vital on the away goals rule.
But one area needs addressing. Arsenal began the game without a recognised striker and at times, it showed. There were crosses into the area that went unconverted or chances that needed that experienced touch.
“It’s the way we prepared the game and the decision that I made, thinking that it was the best way to play, but the game was different after four minutes,” Arteta said on his decision to not start with a striker. “So it’s difficult to assess if it would work or not, considering the set pieces as well changed it and after, we have to approach it in a different way.”
Of Arsenal’s nine shots, only two were on target – compared to Villarreal’s six from the same overall total – and finding the net from open play is an absolute must next Thursday if the Gunners want a spot in the Gdansk final.
Arsenal showed some attacking flair at times, but that needs to run throughout their second leg. They have the right tools, they now need the right execution.
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