At times watching this two-hour game of knockout football felt like sitting through an increasingly entertaining migraine. The RheinEnergieStadion was a mid-August firepit from the start.
The colours swirled across the deep green spaces. And 12 months on from the start of the season, in the dog days of midsummer, Manchester United and FC Copenhagen fought with heartening vigour for the right to progress to the semi-finals of this Europa knockout period.
Thank the sporting heavens, then, for those few moments of light relief. First up there was Mason Greenwood, pretty much a lone note of clarity in a fevered first half. With 44 minutes gone, as United grizzled in the evening heat like a thirsty dog on a midsummer porch, Greenwood could be seen sprinting away from the Copenhagen defence, before spanking the ball with wonderful precision into the far corner.
The goal was ruled out by VAR for offside and the evening plunged back into a state of steaming despond. In that moment it was tempting to wave a fist at the sky like Gérard Depardieu’s urban hunchback in Jean De Florette, watching his crops wither under the Provençal sun, praying to the skies for just a drop of summer rain.
Mainly, thought, thanks should be offered for the extraordinary late-season vigour of Anthony Martial. It was Martial who provided the surge of energy two minutes into injury time that decided this game. First Karl-Johan Johnsson produced a stunning save after Martial had glided through the Copenhagen defence with that familiar stately sense of grace.
Martial’s brilliance in that moment lay in his ability to get up off the ground. Ole Gunner Solskjær made much in the build up of Martial’s improved fitness, his gym workload, his fine conditioning.
And so it came to pass. One year, 46 games and 23 goals into Martial’s season; an hour and a half into this slow-cooked gumbo of a game, he had the will to leap up to his feet, ready to be pulled down again by an arm around the shoulder from Andreas Bjelland.
Martial’s drive, his desire to stop this game sliding off into the zombified horrors of the mid-August penalty shoot out had finally told. Bruno Fernandes gave up on his hop, blasting the ball into the corner with minimal fuss. It felt like an act of mercy.
And yet, this quarter-final had by then opened out into an unexpectedly thrilling game. FC Copenhagen had looked fresher at the start against a United team that seemed to expect the game to simply open up in front of them. Aaron Wan-Bissaka suffered a little against the nimble Rasmus Falk, who has the hair, beard, mannerisms and, on a night like this, the skills of a top-level playmaker. Eric Bailly played a blinder next to him, hurling his body in the way of Copenhagen’s best efforts.
It is worth putting this in context. Ståle Solbakken’s team finished nine points behind FC Midtjylland in the Danish Superliga. Their record transfer fee is still the £4.5m spent on Spanish winger Pep Biel. To put this in further context, Paul Pogba could buy a brand new personalised Pep Biel every four months without dipping into anything beyond his basic salary.
For United there were sparks and flashes from the front three, and a gathering sense of purpose that eventually overwhelmed the Danes. With 56 minutes gone there was more cackling at the skies as Greenwood again took the ball in a tight corner and clanked the foot of the post with a lovely ping off his left foot. Again Marcus Rashford’s follow-up was ruled out for offside. Again there was a collective groan, a sense of heat and weariness re-setting around the players.
Happily for United help was at hand. Fernandes began to find his range, floating some lovely diagonal passes, and finding his own malevolent little half-spaces. Mainly, they had Martial, who has in the last few months gone from a slightly diffident figure to a genuine leader in this team, and at times an irresistible all-round centre-forward.
He has always been a lovely player to watch, with a rare combination of fine-point skill, fine, drifting movement and, when necessary, a burst of real speed. These qualities have coalesced and expanded into one another. As the game wore on in Cologne he looked like a footballer with a set of hidden gears, capable of reaching a level up from everyone else on the pitch.
At the end of which United find themselves running on in to the final acts of European football’s endless season. “We’ve got to make the most of it,” Solskjær had deadpanned ahead of this quarter-final, falling some way short of the traditional chest-beating war cry. And yet here they were all the same, two weeks and two wins from a strange kind of glory – but glory nonetheless.