Football, no matter how many times that vapid old quote is circulated, is not more important than life or death. The health and safety of fans, coaches, ground staff, and players, and all their families — never mind all the members of the public with whom all those people will come into contact — should have made been made enough of a priority to see Manchester United’s first leg Europa League round of 16 tie against Lask postponed.
Other Europa League ties this week have been postponed, as have the upcoming Champions League fixtures, due to the still-growing threat the coronavirus disease COVID-19. UEFA are set to meet on Tuesday (no rush, lads) to discuss the rest of the season, and the cancelation of both competitions is well within the realm of possibility. Despite this, UEFA — in the midst of a global pandemic — chose to push ahead with Thursday’s match. United won 0-5.
It was an eerie atmosphere in Linz. The 500 or so fans who UEFA irresponsibly let into the stadium found their voice occasionally, but other than that most of the sound that watchers at home could hear was the shouts of the players. One Reds fan — almost surely a club staff member — broke out into a lone “We love United” chant on two different occasions in the first half. It’s good to see Mike Phelan keeping busy since being allegedly sidelined from key coaching responsibilities.
United played decently in the first half, if not fluently. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made 5 changes to the side that was playing in a mostly empty stadium, but there were some signs of normalcy at least: Fred shooting wildly from distance, Harry Maguire getting his head on a set piece delivery to no real effect, Dan James’s end product being a disappointment, and Mata almost doing something lovely on the ball.
In the 28th minute, United took the lead. Bruno Fernandes — to no one’s surprise — was at the heart of it. A lofted pass forward from the Portuguese magician put Odion Ighalo in a dangerous position, but Ighalo’s deft technique to control the ball, create separation from the defender, and half volley the finish into the roof of the net was even more impressive. Ighalo even practiced his goal celebration, despite there being no fans in front of whom to celebrate.
The term “precious away goal” sounds quite silly in the context of a tie the second leg of which may never be played, but it was a fine strike to give United a first half lead.
The second half continued just as the first ended (i.e., weird and unnecessary), and less than 15 minutes after the restart, United doubled their lead. Ighalo led a counter attack, and sent James through. The Welsh winger cut onto his right foot, and fired the ball just inside the post to give the visitors a 2-0 advantage.
Two minutes later, Ighalo was put through by Fernandes’s magic again, but this time the Nigerian saw his shot come off the inside of the post.
Tahith Chong, who just signed his new United contract
right before civilization begins to crumble, replaced James with about 20 minutes to go. Not long after that change, Eric Bailly stayed down for an extended period with what looked like a contact injury to his hip. Hopefully, he’ll have time to recover during the upcoming enforced break.
In the 82nd minute, United started what would become a late onslaught. Fred played a through ball towards the edge of the box, and Mata — no doubt aware of the potential life-saving benefits of social distancing — found himself in acres of space. The Wee Spaniard™ gave the Lask ‘keeper the eyes and sent him the wrong way, and finished confidently.
The Reds weren’t done. In injury time, substitute Mason Greenwood, who would have been disappointed not to start this debacle, raced through on goal after being released by Chong and finished from a tight angle, with the ball hitting both posts before going in.
To really add insult to injury, Andreas Pereira — another substitute — took a free kick quickly in the dying seconds and caught the Lask defense and goalkeeper unawares. His swerving long distance shot bounced just past the reach of the ‘keeper to make it 0-5.
United are next in action on Sunday against Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League. Football, like the rest of us, is governed by morons.