Manchester United have been drawn against Barcelona in the Europa League knockout play-off round.
Barcelona have dropped down into the competition after failing to get out of their Champions League group but now provide a stern test for Erik ten Hag’s side, who finished second in their Europa League group.
United will travel to the Camp Nou on 16 February for the first leg of the tie, with the return at Old Trafford taking place on 23 February. They have some fond memories of the venue having completed the 1999 treble there with a last-gasp victory over Bayern Munich in that year’s Champions League final.
“We will have to compete, going to Manchester against a really top rival and an historic side which has grown a lot with the arrival of [Erik] ten Hag,” said Xavi, the Barcelona manager. “[They have] great individual players and it is the toughest rival once again in the Europa League.”
Arsenal, who won their Europa League group, have already progressed to the last 16 of the competition.
Sevilla, who have won the Europa League six times, have also dropped down into the competition from the Champions League and will take on PSV Eindhoven in the first knockout round. Juventus must overcome French side Nantes to secure a place in the last 16 in March.
Roma, who won last season’s inaugural Europa Conference League competition, are up against Austrian league champions RB Salzburg, while Shakhtar Donetsk take on French side Rennes.
Portuguese league runners-up Sporting have been paired against Midtjylland of Denmark, Ajax face Union Berlin and Bayer Leverkusen take on Monaco.
Squali faliti Jose Mourinho called them, and they await Manchester United. A first goal for 18-year-old Alejandro Garnacho was enough to defeat Real Sociedad 1-0 but was not enough to progress as winners of the group, so Erik ten Hag’s team be thrown into a playoff against one of those “failed sharks” from the Champions League, Ajax, Barcelona, Juventus, Leverkusen, Salzburg, Sevilla, Shakhtar and Sporting CP opponents that will have to be overcome to continue in this competition.
That may not be too terrifying, but it wasn’t the way they wanted it. Two more games aren’t what they wanted either. Garnacho’s superb strike after quarter of an hour had briefly given them hope of avoiding that, but one goal was not enough. United needed two, and although they might have got it when Cristiano Ronaldo ran clean through in the first half only to pass up the night’s best chance, they never truly came close again. Real Sociedad deserved this.
The excitement of seeing Garnacho apart, plus a couple of moments from Bruno Fernandes, not much happened for a team that ended the match with Harry Maguire up front. The objective was clear; the route there, less so.
“We know what we have to do,” Ten Hag said. United had to score two goals; so, Imanol Alguacil said, did la Real. When he was reminded of the 4-0 against United in Turin on the eve of this match, the coach shot back “the last two games against them were 0-0 and 0-1, four points and only one goal conceded”, and his team came into this having conceded just once in this competition, but he took as a given that the visitors would score here. “We’re going to need to score at least two goals to win. They’re going to attack us for sure. Either we get into our heads that we need to score two or we won’t top the group.”
The opening suggested that they did indeed have that in their heads, Pablo Marin firing off the first shot after just thirty-five seconds and Carlos Fernández hitting the side-netting four minutes later. La Real wanted the ball and by half time had racked up three times as many attacks. And yet, that may have suited United, who were incisive when they had the chance to move, the space behind both full backs there for them to run into – which was how they got the first goal.
Fernandes beat Diego Rico to head on, Ronaldo collected and slotted a perfectly weighted pass left for Garnacho. He beat Andoni Gorosabel and struck a superb rising shot over Álex Remiro and into the net. It was his first for the club; the confidence of the finish said it won’t be the last. The confidence of the minutes that followed too. This was a lively display, and he was soon receiving a lovely pass from Fernandes to shoot over.
Real kept coming but there was a nervousness about them when United stepped out which was expressed best when Jon Pacheco swiped at the ball, with Ronaldo just behind him. Through all alone, the ball sat up, an invitation he never turn down. Ronaldo though lifted it over Remiro and over the bar, his lob ending on the roof of the net.
At the other end, the impressive Marin, 19 years old and making only his second start, scuffed one inside the area just when things were opening in front of him and got an even better chance only for David de Gea to somehow keep him out. The first save from De Gea was superb, one handed low to his right; the second, from barely a yard, saw him recover fast and throw himself before Marin’s follow-up, the ball hitting his shoulder.
Marin was withdrawn to applause just before the hour at the same time as Marcus Rashford was brought on, four simultaneous substitutions seeming to suggest a shift: la Real would resist, United would attack. Rashford’s first run immediately revealed the intended threat. Given a role behind the forwards where the departing Donny van de Beek had been to little real effect, there was not a huge amount else though.
Real continued to have a lot of the ball, and the territorial advantage too, if not much clarity around the area. When Luke Shaw slipped, a poor pass from Robert Navarro saw a three-on-one come to nothing. The game was getting fractious now, on edge and increasingly feeling like a case of next goal wins. Sociedad were closer to it, Alexander Sørloth twice threatening, De Gea making a simple enough save from Ander Guevara and Navarro progressing deep into the United area, his effort blocked. Crosses came and went for la Real, the shot total reaching 15-4, and substitutions were made.
Including, eventually Maguire – up front. That didn’t work either.
Javier Rico might just be the happiest man in Donostia today. The whole place has been waiting for this since the draw was made and the tickets sold out in hours, everyone desperate to be at another special match for Real Sociedad, the only team in the Europa League to have won every game. But no one is looking forward to Manchester United’s visit on Thursday and the chance to advance as group winners quite like the 26-year-old from Burgos who arrived in the city last night and is staying until Sunday. “He’s mad for it,” says his brother, Diego.
Diego Rico is the Real Sociedad left-back, playing in Spain again after three seasons in England, and Javi is his biggest fan. Three years younger, living with a neurological condition that has a profound physical and mental impact, having been through dozens of operations, Javier is also his inspiration. “Mine, my family’s, everyone’s,” the former Bournemouth defender says.
“My brother was born with his spinal column outside his body. The doctors said he was going to be in a vegetative state his whole life,” Rico says. “I don’t know what it’s called: doctors say it’s like he has part of two syndromes together, but the ‘best’, least damaging part of each. But through fight, sacrifice, he has grown, the spinal column has moved into place.
“There has been psychomotor training, swimming pool [rehabilitation], hours of work from my parents to brings us through it, keep us going. We thought he would spend his life in a hospital bed, so to be able to see my brother now – imagine it. Only me and my family know what we have all been through, yet he never complains about anything. It’s this huge problem to us, but to him it’s nothing: there’s a smile, energy, and that’s the inspiration. Any problem you have, it’s nothing.”
Javi goes to almost every game, Rico says. At full-time Diego seeks him out in the stands and brings him down to the pitch to be with the players. In their last European game, Uefa gave him accreditation so he could join them. “He always hangs around to take pictures with all the players,” Rico says.
“It’s all he thinks about and it’s all of them. Everyone who comes out, he waits, he asks. Real Sociedad are so good, facilitating it so he can be where the team bus is. My mum does an album for him. He has them going back to when he was very small: all the players, all my teammates, autographs, stickers, albums, everything. That’s what makes him most happy. He hasn’t seen Manchester United in person and he’s preparing everything. He’s got it all planned out.”
Although Javi visited Dean Court often and Diego has faced United before – indeed, has beaten them – it wasn’t always so easy for him in England. It wasn’t so easy for Diego either, perspective on his problems provided by his brother.
Rico’s signing in 2018 was completed in a hurry late in the transfer window and while he says it was a “pleasure” to play in the Premier League and that he would have “no problem” returning to England, he describes the shift in football as a “radical change: all up and down, duels, challenges, the faster you get into the area the better”. He started five league games in his first season and although he started 27 in the second it ended in relegation. “It wasn’t very positive for me, personally and professionally,” he says.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity Eddie Howe gave me, the advice, and I learned. I would have liked to have been used more, but those are sporting decisions you have to respect and he’s proving himself at Newcastle,” he says. “I think the word would be descolocado [roughly: out of place]. I adapted well at first then it was like I had to adapt again because I wasn’t playing. But that’s sport: be patient, don’t give any reason to think ill of you, no bad attitude, no bad training sessions, bite your tongue, keep working, make the most of any opportunity.
“He said his door was always open. And I did go and ask what he needed from me. He explained and every session I would stay behind doing those things. I was like that for a year, a year and a half. At the start he said what he wanted us to improve and then depending on training and games he would say: clearances, one on ones, bringing the ball out, long balls, whatever. I would stay every day 40, 45 minutes with staff, with him, practising. Never a bad face, never a bad gesture, just trying to do what he wanted.
“I don’t have a bad word to say about anyone and beyond the sporting side of it him and his staff are good people. There are players who got more opportunities, but that’s football.”
At the end of the second season, with Howe departing, Atlético Madrid were among the teams that came but Bournemouth wouldn’t let Rico go. “There are some opportunities that only come once. The manager, who was Eddie’s No 2 [Jason Tindall], said I was going to be important, I had to stay. He said one thing, then did something else.
“When we then missed out on going up, Real Sociedad came. I spoke to the sporting director and said I couldn’t turn down another chance. I told him the previous year they had taken a unique opportunity from me and I wasn’t going to let it happen again.”
For the family, for Javi, a return was good news. “For all of us,” Rico says. “There came a moment when I wasn’t comfortable, wasn’t happy. Because of everything really: not playing, the opportunity they made me miss out on, then things aren’t how they said they would be. That makes you feel bad, angry, so we all felt like leaving. And to be near home: instead of hours from Burgos to Bournemouth, it’s an hour and a half: that’s quite a difference. I’m very happy in the club, the city.”
Real Sociedad are fifth in La Liga and if they can can avoid a 2-0 defeat will go through to the last 16 in Europe, although Rico believes they won’t park the bus. Nor will he worry if United’s Anthony suddenly starts spinning in front of him. “I’ve never been there so I don’t know how I would react,” he says, laughing.
“Everyone can do what they want as long as they don’t hurt an opponent. That’s his way of playing. It’s in the blood and it’s not going to change however much people criticise him. And if he loses it, it’s as if it didn’t happen at all, so let it end like that.
“It’s a ‘final’, people are really excited. Everyone wants to play games like this, against the best and there’s first place to play for, which is what matters most.”
Asked who he would like to swap shirts with, Diego Rico smiles. “De Gea, Casemiro, Cristiano, Rashford … but any player who wants to is fine. Besides, it goes to my brother and he’ll love any shirt he gets. He’d like Cristiano or De Gea probably. But what he most wants is for us to win. Then he’ll be there waiting for all the players for a photo. He’ll be happy, he always is. ”
Bukayo Saka allayed fears he could miss the World Cup through injury as he trained with his Arsenal teammates on Wednesday.
The 21-year-old was forced off during Sunday’s 5-0 win over Nottingham Forest, lasting just 27 minutes after taking a kick to the ankle.
It’s just under three weeks until England open their World Cup campaign against Iran and Saka’s withdrawal against Forest sparked concerns he could miss out on the plane to Qatar.
The Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta said after the Forest win that he was “hopeful” Saka would be fine for the World Cup, adding: “It was a bad kick. Right from the beginning he was limping, but I don’t see any further than that. Let’s see how he is in the next couple of days.”
Saka then trained at Arsenal’s London Colney base as the squad prepared for Thursday’s Europa League clash with Zurich at the Emirates Stadium. Arteta’s side just need to equal the result of PSV Eindhoven – who face Bodø/Glimt – to ensure they qualify as winners of Group A and receive a bye into the last 16.
Manchester United are far from the finished article but, after a rocky start to the season in which they lost to Brighton and Brentford, conceding six goals in the process, the signs are positive for Erik ten Hag. The Dutchman must have been worried about his team after the first two weeks of the campaign, but they have recovered well and sit just a point below the Champions League places with a game in hand on fourth-placed Newcastle.
After a barren run – they have not won a trophy since José Mourinho guided them to success in the Europa League more than five years ago – Ten Hag seems to be getting United back on track. Fans now go to Old Trafford confident that the team will pick up all the spoils, as they have done in four of their last five games, with Newcastle the only side to leave Manchester with a result in that run.
The new additions deserve praise. There were plenty of doubts about Lisandro Martínez given his height, but he has adjusted well to the Premier League and is showing why he is nicknamed “the butcher”. Casemiro and Christian Eriksen have improved the midfield in different ways, while Antony has proven an enjoyable and prolific right winger for United, scoring three goals in just six league appearances.
Ten Hag has also made his mark on the old guard at Old Trafford. United had become stagnant before the manager arrived in the summer. Cristiano Ronaldo has been demoted, the Portuguese forward starting just three league games under Ten Hag, but there are others who had become far too comfortable in their surroundings.
United were not threatening enough from wide positions last season and needed more attacking impetus from their full-backs. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is defensively solid, but he does not contribute enough offensively; in 127 games for United he has only scored twice and provided 10 assists. He made 26 appearances for the club last season and picked up more red cards (one) than he contributed goals or assists (none). The 24-year-old has not developed the offensive side of his game and has been duly restricted to just four minutes of action this season.
Wan-Bissaka has had to watch on as Diogo Dalot has taken his place and excelled under Ten Hag. Right-back was a problem position for United, who were linked with moves for the Dutch defenders, Denzel Dumfries of Inter and Jurrien Timber of Ajax, but Dalot is making the spot his own. Competition was hardly rife given Wan-Bissaka’s offensive shortcomings, but Dalot has thrived down the right flank. Only Bruno Fernandes (29) has created more goalscoring chances than Dalot (20) for United in the league this season. United tend to attack more down their left side – 41% of their attacks go down their left flank compared to just 32%, the joint-lowest in the Premier League, down their right flank – but Dalot makes the most of his opportunities to get forward.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride for Dalot at United and one that nearly had a premature end last year. José Mourinho signed him from Porto in 2018 for £19m. “The chance of coming to the biggest club in the world is something I just couldn’t turn down,” said the 19-year-old full-back. He struggled with injuries and his appearances were limited under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who preferred the solidity that Wan Bissaka gave the defence.
Dalot spent the 2020-21 season on loan at Milan and, while not a first-team regular for the Rossoneri – just 10 of his 21 appearances in Serie A came from the outset – the club saw enough to try to sign him permanently. Dalot says he enjoyed his time in Italy but, when the loan spell finished, he turned down the chance to extend his stay and instead returned to England and vowed to fight for his place. “In the end I decided to stay at United and it was the right decision,” he said in September.
Dalot enjoyed more opportunities towards the end of last season under Ralf Rangnick and he showed positive signs that he could be the attacking outlet United need at right-back. He has also improved the defensive side of his game, which he credits to his time in Italy. “If I’m a better defender, I owe it to Milan,” he says. “Italian football is different from the Premier League. I had to adapt in just one year and playing in Serie A has helped me a lot.” He is being dribbled past just 0.7 times per 90 minutes this season.
Dalot looks like a player who is full of confidence. He is contributing in the final third, with more touches than any other United player this season, and is doing his bit in what has become one of the tightest defences in the league. United are unbeaten in their last eight games and have only conceded four goals in that run. They look like a very different team to the one that conceded four goals in 25 minutes against Brentford in August.
It’s still early days in Ten Hag’s rebuild, but there is a semblance of an identity returning to United, which has been missing in recent years. Rather than dread the weekend’s fixtures, fans are excited about what to expect from their side. A work in progress, yes, but Dalot encapsulates perfectly what Ten Hag is looking for in his squad – an exciting youngster who is keen to develop and offers more than the player he replaced.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s return after a one-game hiatus had the grandstand finish he just loves to produce: an 81st-minute strike that confirmed Manchester United’s qualification for the Europa League knockout round playoffs, at least.
For Erik ten Hag’s team to reach the last 16 directly they must beat Real Sociedad in the final group game by two clear goals. If this is unlikely, what was definitely unsurprising was how the timeless Ronaldo, still believing in himself after a slew of missed chances, was quick to hammer home after Maxym Koval saved his header. The goal may be read as a sweet riposte to his exclusion for the draw at Chelsea after refusing to enter against Tottenham and exiting before the end.
After his name was announced to loud cheers and, maybe, a smattering of jeers, Ronaldo hoped to recommence what he loves to do: score goals. In this endeavour he had to his left the full debutant Alejandro Garnacho, who according to Ten Hag has the “x factor”.
That quality would be needed to break down Sheriff, who were content to sit in a deep, defensive 4-5-1 shape, and Garnacho offered a flash of his quality when his weaving run found Ronaldo. He fed Antony, whose snap-shot was gathered by Maxym Koval.
This followed a Christian Eriksen chip for Tyrell Malacia, one of four United changes, that went close to playing the left-back in and preceded a corner from the Dane which Casemiro headed at Stjepan Radeljic, the visiting captain.
The flurry of chances continued when Garnacho roved in from the left and aimed the ball at Ronaldo, resulting in another corner. The delivery was steered on to the roof of the net by the Portuguese but United had their opponents precisely where they wanted: under siege.
The pace was a stroll, Eriksen again able to dink in a lob – this time for Garnacho, who should have smashed at Koval.
Two goals in 12 appearances going into this game was a below-par return for Ronaldo. The way he strode forward and pulled back a foot to let fly only for Moussa Kyabou to smother him pointed at the reason behind it: a crucial slowing in the 37-year-old’s synapses that has dulled his edge. There was, though, nothing sluggish about the run that took Ronaldo on to the end of a Bruno Fernandes cross but, from close range, he fluffed the chance.
The Moldovan side, managed by Victor Mihailov after Stjepan Tomas’s resignation earlier this week, continued to cling on. Koval dived right to save Eriksen’s shot, then Fernandes tried to turn the rebound towards Ronaldo but failed to find him. Next, the latter dropped a shoulder and pulled the trigger from distance but Gaby Kiki got his body in the way.
United’s 77.2% possession as half-time beckoned told the story of the first 45 minutes. But when Sheriff broke and Patrick Kpozo flipped over a ball that Ibrahim Akanbi Rasheed should have headed home there was a warning. At last, though, Ten Hag’s men had their reward: an Eriksen corner from the left was met by Diogo Dalot, who rose to beat Koval.
For the second half Marcus Rashford replaced Antony, who may not have impressed Ten Hag with a showboating 720-degree spin before the break, while Lisandro Martínez made way for Harry Maguire. The captain, on for his first United action in seven weeks after an injury, received mild boos: hardly the finest welcome back.
Rashford took up Fernandes’s usual No 10 berth, the Portuguese moving right to fill in for the departed Antony – a Ten Hag move that may have been designed to harness Rashford’s pace directly behind Ronaldo.
Patience and poise were required to double the lead. Garnacho seriously lacked the second quality when lashing a regulation cross all the way over to the right; far better was the darting run and ball moments later that did hit the danger area.
Sheriff scrambled clear but only to see those in red to continue hogging possession. Ronaldo’s next contribution was to receive an Eriksen tap, jink right and, with Koval’s goal begging to be found, somehow blaze wide. His reaction – deep disappointment – was understandable but this was still positive. When he did volley in only to see the flag raised, frustration had Ronaldo smashing the ball into the Stretford End, yet this again illustrated an ever-growing sharpness.
The second goal for United was a simple affair. Luke Shaw, another substitute, teed up Rashford, who headed in convincingly for his sixth goal of the campaign. But, yet again, it was Ronaldo who seized the narrative.
In his haste to avoid two extra Europa League fixtures, Mikel Arteta may now have to bring out the big guns for one more. This was Arsenal’s worst performance of the season by some distance and, while it is hardly time for alarm bells, a wake-up call had been coming.
They never got going against a motivated PSV Eindhoven who were transformed by a masterclass in centre-forward play from the half-time substitute Luuk De Jong and it leaves the visitors’ manager with an unwelcome dilemma.
The subject of tiredness has been a creeping theme in Arsenal’s season, largely because of Arteta’s insistence on fielding strong sides in an unremarkable Europa League group. It had brought them a 100% record up to this point and a draw here would have meant a potential night off against FC Zürich next Thursday. While Arsenal have already qualified for the knockout stage, winning the group would mean they bypass a dicey play-off in February, a round in which Juventus and Barcelona await.
A starting lineup featuring Gabriel Martinelli, Martin Ødegaard, Granit Xhaka, William Saliba and Aaron Ramsdale should have been strong enough to complete the task. Instead Arteta was obliged to fling on Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Jesus and Thomas Partey in fruitless pursuit of salvation as their night disintegrated. It did not work and the concern now is that he may have to deploy at least some of them against Zürich, three days before they visit Chelsea.
That Swiss assignment at the Emirates should pose few problems and a win would guarantee top spot. But Arteta must decide how many chances to take at a time when flat second-half performances are becoming a trend. They had flattered to deceive at Bodø/Glimt, Leeds and Southampton; a result like this felt around the corner and it is reasonable to wonder whether, and why, an element of their early-season freshness might be missing.
“It’s the end of a long run and now it’s time to reset and analyse what happened,” Arteta said. “PSV deserved to win, no question, we were nowhere near our level today. We didn’t have the threat and aggression we’ve been playing at and that is worrying.” It was true from kick-off. PSV needed this more, a fact borne out by their exuberant post-match celebrations.
They knew a win could secure them a knockout place if Bodø/Glimt failed to beat Zürich and two late goals from the Swiss side sealed a perfect night. Ruud van Nistelrooy’s players had, save for the schemer Xavi Simons, not impressed in defeat at the Emirates but were greatly improved here. Simons had an early shot saved by Ramsdale, who was deployed due to Matt Turner’s groin injury, while both he and Cody Gakpo had first-half goals chalked off for narrow offsides.
Yet they did not look capable of mounting sustained pressure until De Jong, the 32-year-old who was scoring in La Liga for Barcelona last season, came on and made everything stick. PSV began the second period at speed but thought they had squandered a chance when Gakpo raced through and shot across goal, the ball running out of play on the far side.
The danger looked to have passed but Eddie Nketiah, who could learn numerous things from De Jong on this evidence, was beaten too easily to Kieran Tierney’s throw-in up the line and Arsenal were now in trouble again. De Jong rolled Rob Holding too easily outside the area and was able to tee up Joey Veerman, arriving on the run, for a swept first-time finish that cranked up an already feverish atmosphere.
“The moment something went wrong we just went down and didn’t know how to react,” Arteta said. The final blow was applied eight minutes later and it was a sobering moment for Ramsdale in particular. He missed his punch from Gakpo’s left-sided corner, Holding having failed to connect when jumping alongside him, and the ball could ping off a more determined De Jong’s head into the vacant goal.
Arsenal could point to smart saves demanded of Walter Benítez by Nketiah, once early on and again towards the end, and a wayward volley by Martinelli before the interval. But they were sluggish with their 70% share of possession and lax in the duels when out of it; there was no point dressing up their display as anything better and Arteta must now cajole them into finishing the job next week.
“They have been exceptionally good and playing at a level that probably no one expected,” he said. “Now it’s down to me to get the best out of them.”
Gabriel Jesus believes suggestions Arsenal’s players could experience burnout this season are unfounded and says he has no fear of fatigue during a campaign in which he could play more than 60 games for club and country.
Eyebrows were raised last week when Mikel Arteta said his team, in relation to their workload and Bukayo Saka’s inclusion in European ties, should take the example of top players who “play 70 matches, every three days, make the difference and win the game”.
Arteta has made minimal changes to his starting XI in the Premier League wherever possible and has not been shy to field big names in an untaxing Europa League group but Jesus believes hitting his manager’s target would not fatigue him.
“Of course not,” he said. “I’m doing good recovery after the games: eating better, sleeping better, enjoying life in the Arsenal T-shirt a lot. So I’m ready to play 50, 60, 70 games per season.”
Jesus could start against PSV Eindhoven on Thursday as Arteta seeks the draw that would guarantee top spot in Group A with a game to spare and avoid the complication of an extra knockout round in February. In theory he could play around 70 times this season if both Arsenal and Brazil, for whom he hopes to feature at the World Cup, enjoy successful campaigns. Such an eventuality is hardly unknown: in 2019-20 he played 61 matches, whether as a starter or off the bench, in all competitions for Manchester City and the Seleção.
The question regarding overwork has cropped up in part because Jesus, who scored five goals in his first nine Arsenal games, has drawn blanks in his most recent five. Those figures do not tell the full story of his contribution but he was happy to address the topic. “That’s happened before and I’m pretty sure in the future it’s going to happen again,” he said. “I don’t want it to be like this, of course. I want to improve, I want to work and then next game, I try again. And I’m 100% sure I will score.”
Saka and Gabriel Martinelli are two other players leaned on heavily by Arteta and Jesus smilingly referred to them as “machines”.
The Football Association confirmed on Wednesday that it would not be taking further action regarding an alleged comment made by Jordan Henderson to the Arsenal defender Gabriel Magalhães when Liverpool visited the Emirates Stadium this month. “Whilst the FA is entirely satisfied that the allegation was made in good faith, it is equally satisfied that there is no case to answer,” its statement read.
Asked whether the matter was closed from Arsenal’s perspective, Arteta said: “I said from the first day that it’s a decision that relies totally on the FA and they made that decision so that’s it.”
On Gabriel’s point of view, he said: “That’s something to ask to Gabi but the decision is made.”
Oleksandr Zinchenko remains sidelined by a calf injury and Arsenal will wait to see if Marquinhos has recovered from sickness before deciding if the winger can face PSV.
Arsenal are through to the Europa League knockout stages and close to achieving a secondary aim, too. Granit Xhaka’s superbly-taken winner 19 minutes from time saw off a PSV Eindhoven side, managed by an old foe in Ruud van Nistelrooy, who resisted awkwardly before buckling under intense pressure. It means Mikel Arteta’s team retain their perfect Group A record, now requiring a point from their final two games to finish top and avoid the inconvenience of an extra playoff round in February.
The task for Arsenal was made clear from kick-off: they would have to break down visitors who had come to sit in and thwart. Van Nistelrooy’s side, second in the Eredivisie, had scored 10 times across two ties with FC Zurich but were pragmatic about what might be achieved here. They did not manage a spell of possession in Arsenal’s half until the 16th minute although, in fairness, they had hardly been hanging on until then.
Arteta had again treated a Thursday night with respect, retaining five of the side that scraped past Leeds and deciding not to give Gabriel Jesus a second successive midweek off. Bukayo Saka was also pressed into action and found himself behind the first flutter of excitement, clipping a cross that Kieran Tierney blazed over after Eddie Nketiah had miscued.
Nketiah, deployed on the left, pressed PSV’s defence eagerly but a sidefooted shot from Xhaka was the next moment of relatively serious threat. It missed the target and so, by slightly less, did a daisy cutter sent in by Jesus after finding space 20 yards out. In truth these were morsels although Jesus, anticipating a cleverly scooped ball from Fábio Vieira on the half-hour and taking a swing, would surely have scored if he had made contact.
By then PSV had offered a couple of glimmers for their noisy following. Cody Gakpo, the vaunted winger who had talks with Manchester United in the summer, set off on a couple of gliding runs down the left while the sharp Xavi Simons was allowed to run through a void midfield before blasting over.
Those moments did little to reverse the traffic but Arsenal found themselves bogged down in congestion until half-time. Vieira brushed the side netting with a free-kick and a sparkling Saka run gave Nketiah the chance to centre, but PSV had bodies in the way and survived in relative comfort.
There had been little to enthuse the crowd that came out for this rescheduled fixture in what were, considering the unusual 6pm kick-off time, laudable numbers. The touchline-stalking figure of Van Nistelrooy might once have added a distraction but raised not a flicker of interest from the stands: perhaps many of those present were too young to remember the days when his presence in a Manchester United shirt meant guaranteed needle.
Jesus tried to add some edge but scuffed through to Walter Benítez in the 52nd minute after smart work from Saka. Shortly afterwards Simons volleyed high from a fast PSV break and then Saka ran through but, with the best chance to date, let Benítez save with a leg. At least proceedings were opening up.
They did so again when Jesus, in space, could not make a clean enough contact and allowed Benítez to tip away low down. Nketiah then took down a diagonal ball superbly before cutting inside and missing narrowly; Arsenal were getting closer but Arteta nonetheless summoned Thomas Partey and Martin Ødegaard for the final quarter.
Simons made Matt Turner save for the first time but Xhaka quickly produced the moment Arsenal had been threatening. Both newcomers were involved in a move that ended with Takehiro Tomiyasu crossing deliberately from the right. Xhaka, stationed around the penalty spot, greeted the delivery with a sweet half-volley past Benítez and enhanced his new-found reputation as a menace in opposition boxes. Saka, twice, and the substitute Gabriel Martinelli both came close to doubling the lead but one was enough.
Manchester United came close to rueing their failure to claim three points before Scott McTominay scored a stoppage-time winner to give them hope of winning Group E and avoiding a knockout tie against a Champions League-eliminated opponent.
That might be one of Barcelona, Milan, Juventus and Atlético Madrid, none of whom Erik ten Hag’s fledgling team would relish facing. Tonight they had lacked ruthlessness until McTominay’s close-range finish ensured United’s evening ended well.
Ten Hag’s men have Sheriff and Real Sociedad left to play but the Spanish side are three points better off on 12 so remain favourites to top the group.
Cristiano Ronaldo was United’s central striker due to Anthony Martial’s injury, as Ten Hag’s side’s attempted to take a significant step towards qualification against an opponent yet to gather a point before this match.
Omonia Nicosia’s fans, in loud voice before kick-off, saw their side defend two early corners – the first of which featured Marcus Rashford’s shot warming Francis Uzoho’s fingers. There followed a passage of pass-and-move as crisp as this October night, United exerting the control their manager seeks. Rashford, bright throughout the first half, swept a crossfield ball to the right, then later released Ronaldo whose strike hit the side-netting.
Ronaldo’s next offering was to take Tyrell Malacia’s driven pass with aplomb, swivel on to his left, and shoot. This earned another corner and Rashford intervened again, swapping passes with Bruno Fernandes ahead of the captain steering wide from an angle on the left.
Fernandes loves to fizz about and be involved and when the Omonia forward Bruno hit a free-kick into United’s area there he was to clear. From an Omonia corner, Fernandes broke and overcooked a ball aimed for Ronaldo’s charge into the area.
The best hope for Neil Lennon’s side was a quick break. When Andronikos Kakoulli sprinted down the right, Lisandro Martínez had to block. Omonia’s manager was noticeably chagrined, perhaps at his team’s lack of urgency, allowing United to hog the ball on their own terms. One phase ended with Fernandes simply tapping left to Rashford and he was in and shooting – but only at an advancing Uzoho. Rashford came close again when dancing into Omonia’s area, leaving a turquoise-shirted defender on his backside, though his effort was stymied once more.
The 24-year-old’s act dazzled: now he swerved infield and hit a curving attempt that required Uzoho to leap left and save. United’s 77.6% possession at the half-hour mark was indicative of their dominance. Needed was a goal – or two – to make this count. Ronaldo took a turn to try, a classy pirouette followed by a cute dink –which was the polar opposite to how Casemiro, from 20 yards, crashed the ball against Uzoho’s bar.
When Malacia and Rashford crafted a passing triangle inside Omonia’s area and the left-back drilled the ball into Ronaldo, the forward may have missed – but the move was reminiscent of how Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City breach many sides: encouraging for Ten Hag who wishes to construct a possession-based unit.
However the half ended with warnings for United: Bruno skated in behind and had Kakoulli free and begging to be set-up but he blazed over. Then Diogo Dalot mis-hit a pass that allowed Kakoulli in and as David de Gea charged out, Martínez barged the Omonia striker aside. It appeared a foul – maybe even a red card as the defender was the last man – but the referee, Jérôme Brisard, was not interested and neither, oddly, was the VAR.
Antony and Rashford continued United’s frustration after the interval. At least the Brazilian forced Uzoho into a sharp save. Rashford’s follow-up was tame with what was an easy opening. Further carelessness ensued when Malacia latched on to a Fernandes pass and the left-back could not beat the impressive Uzoho. Neither could Ronaldo when the ball appeared before him.
Last week Ten Hag praised United’s calmness when going behind in Cyprus. The same quality had to be shown in this return fixture and, surely, the breakthrough would come. But two Fernandes corners, an Antony cross that missed Ronaldo, and Rashford steering wide when clean through all lacked composure. So off came Antony and Malacia for Jadon Sancho and Luke Shaw.
A combination from the new arrivals that sought to put Fernandes in augured well yet the clock ticked down. Rashford, for seemingly the umpteenth time, spurned an opportunity before Casemiro escaped serious injury after a two-footed Moreto Cassamá lunge.
To win, Ten Hag now introduced Christian Eriksen’s savvy. He probed and unloaded a couple to no avail. But McTominay, on later, ended the hero to send United fans home happy.