Pogba finds central role at Man Utd
Contrary to what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was able to say after the astonishing demolition of Roma by Manchester United, it is surely a job done.
United will travel to Rome not only with a four-goal lead, but with the comforting certainty that they are a class above their opponents. And maybe more than one.
The caveat to any hyperbole about United’s performance must be recognition of their opponents’ limitations. Roma are not a particularly good team, as betrayed by their modest position in the Serie A table. But, all the same, it was a very good display for United, scoring five unanswered goals in a devastating blitz from 45 minutes. Regardless of the opponents, there is going back and forth.
For Solskjaer, the victory surely marks the end of his hoodoo semi-final. And the United boss can take credit for refusing to panic in the meantime when his side found themselves 2-1 down. The temptation must have been to introduce Mason Greenwood on the spot, then from the bench. But the United boss kept his cool and his reward was emphatic.
Although there were other contenders for the concentration, but as United tore Roma apart, it was difficult to look past Paul Pogba’s role in the chaos. Body language is easily mistranslated, but the Frenchman not only watched the game against Roma, but he watched the game in this United squad.
A few months ago, he seemed certain he would be leaving 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 rhythm. But it has worked here with a wonderful effect, just like a few weeks ago at Tottenham. Better yet, and even if that denies him a central position, it gives Pogba the platform to take center stage; he has never looked so good in a United shirt.
Arsenal show resilience, but need more flair in second leg
Sixty minutes after Thursday’s first leg, Arsenal were on a one-way train out of the Europa League. Some dubious defenders had seen them fall 2-0 behind in half an hour and Dani Ceballos was sent off, already avoiding a second yellow earlier in the half.
But after getting a first-half penalty for handball, Arsenal got a second in the 71st minute after Manu Trigueros caught Bukayo Saka from behind. Nicolas Pepe confidently sent him to the middle – he has now been directly involved in more Europa League goals this season than any other player (10; six goals, four assists).
A familiar face was then given his marching orders for Villarreal, when former Tottenham midfielder Etienne Capoue received a second yellow card as he was stretched out injured in a late challenge on Bukayo Sako. Credit also goes to Bernd Leno for a series of life-saving late-game stoppages, showing no ill effects from his howler against Everton last Friday.
Make no mistake – Arsenal have shown wonderful resilience to come back after repeated punches at La Ceramica. In other seasons – perhaps under Villarreal manager Unai Emery – Arsenal would have backed off, but Pepe’s penalty could be vital on the away goals rule.
But one area needs to be addressed. Arsenal started the game without a recognized striker and sometimes it showed. There were crosses in the area that weren’t converted or chances that required that experienced contact.
“It’s the way we prepared for the game and the decision I made, thinking it was the best way to play, but the game was different after four minutes,” Arteta said of his decision not to play. not start with an attacker. “So it’s hard to assess whether it would work or not, given that set pieces have also changed it and afterwards we have to approach it in a different way.”
Of Arsenal’s nine shots, only two were on target – compared to Villarreal’s six on the same overall total – and finding the net in open play is an absolute must next Thursday if the Gunners want a place in the Gdansk final.
Arsenal have shown attacking flair at times, but that must last throughout their second leg. They have the right tools, now they need the right execution.