Manchester United’s long Europa League campaign will run on a little longer. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would not have wanted his players to be subjected to extra time during this condensed, compacted mini-tournament in Germany after a long and hard domestic season, but they required an extra half-hour in order to overcome Stale Solbakken’s spirited Copenhagen.
Bruno Fernandes’ spot kick – United’s 21st penalty in all competitions this season, won by Anthony Martial at the start of the further 30 minutes – ultimately made the difference.
Progression to the last four would have come a lot more easily if not for the acrobatics of Copenhagen goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson and the woodwork, which United struck time and again.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
This was hard work, though. Copenhagen were the better side for spells and had opportunities of their own.
Unfortunately for Solbakken, the best of them fell to his left-back. Solskjaer, by contrast, can now look forward to a semi-final against either Sevilla or familiar foes in the shape of Wolverhampton Wanderers on Sunday, though the concern will be just how much energy was expended in getting there.
United began poorly, sloppy in possession and sluggish out of it. The lively Mohamed Daramy – some two-and-a-half months younger than even Mason Greenwood – caused plenty of issues in the opening exchanges. It took Eric Bailly, a surprise selection alongside Harry Maguire in the centre of United’s defence, to step in front of the 18-year-old and deny him a simple tap-in after a quarter-of-an-hour.
Bailly could do little to stop Daramy again a few minutes later when the teenager turned one way, then another, then rounded him inside the penalty area. This time, Maguire was on hand to block the goal-bound shot. The chance had come about after Fred’s wayward pass in midfield, but several United players were just as guilty of being careless with the ball. Copenhagen were dominating.
This was not in the script but United gradually began re-writing it, enjoying more and more of the ball in Copenhagen territory. Greenwood appeared to have found the breakthrough in added-on time at the end of the half, bursting in behind to collect Marcus Rashford’s flicked header and finishing brilliantly, striking across goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson from an acute right-hand angle, against the post and in.
It would have been Greenwood’s 18th goal of an astonishing debut campaign, if only he had not strayed a yard or so offside in the build-up. The goal was correctly ruled out after a lengthy VAR review and there would be more frustration in the early stages of the second half. Greenwood struck the upright once again. This time, the ball bounced clear of goal for Rashford yet he was flagged while converting the rebound.
Bruno Fernandes was next to hit the woodwork. His speculative attempt from range beat Johnsson but did not fall kindly for a United team-mate, at which point you began to wonder whether it would be one of those evenings that one-off knock-out ties produce every so often. Yet for Copenhagen to pull off a shock result, they would need to take their chances and Bryan Oviedo missed a glorious one.
The Costa Rica international is best known on these shores for a five-year spell at Everton, the highlight of which was a late winning goal sliding in at the far post at Old Trafford in 2013. Seven years later, Oviedo was too slow to meet a lay-off to the back post after Rasmus Falk’s brilliant wing play, allowing Aaron Wan-Bissaka to block. It was comfortably the best opportunity of the evening. Copenhagen could not make it count.
Yet if anything, Solbakken’s players grew in confidence after that miss and United wilted. Still, the under-dogs needed to stay alert. Anthony Martial was denied twice in the final seven minutes of normal time, first by Johnsson’s strong right-hand to push away a goal-bound shot from distance, then by Viktor Nelsson’s last-ditch challenge after a slaloming run through the Copenhagen defence.
Third time lucky? Martial picked up where he left off and continued to pose questions of Solbakken’s rearguard at the start of extra time – forcing yet another swift save out of Johnsson – and then moments later won the decisive penalty.
It was a soft award, in fairness, but Andreas Bjelland gave him every opportunity of going to ground by wrapping his arm across Martial’s shoulder. Fernandes has not missed from the spot in some four years and, even against the inspired Johnsson, maintained that immaculate record.
United pushed on, attempting to put their place in the last four beyond doubt. Juan Mata’s introduction at the start of extra time had brought more movement and vision to their play – the Spaniard became the third of Solskjaer’s players to strike the post – but they would not need the added insurance of a second goal.
This was long night at the end of a long campaign but United march on.