Manchester United faced Real Betis this evening as they looked to take full advantage of being drawn at home for the first leg. Erik ten Hag named an unchanged eleven from the weekend, giving his players a chance to redeem themselves after Sunday’s performance.
While the personnel was the same, the oreientation of the attacking players was not, with Wout Weghorst taking up his natural centre forward role and Marcus Rashford operating on the left. Bruno Fernandes played as an eight alongside Fred, with Antony in his usual right-wing slot.
United started well enough, with composed passing leading to a fine cross from Fred into Weghorst, who chested it into the back of the net. Unfortunately, the offside flag denied the Red Devils the opener on that occasion.
Barely a minute had passed before United did find the first goal, however, with an incisive counterattack giving Bruno Fernandes a good crossing opportunity. A deflection off Luis Felipe saw the ball fall perfectly for Rashford. The coolest head in the house, Rashford shimmied onto his right foot, left two defenders on the ground, and smashed the ball into the roof of the net with aplomb. Six minutes on the clock and United were ahead.
Man United looked particularly dangerous on their right flank, where Fernandes and Antony linked up well together. Shortly after Rashford’s goal, an overload on that side gave Casemiro space to cross in for Weghorst, whose header unfortunately lacked the power to best Claudio Bravo in goal.
The team were keen to press high in the early stages of the match, with Weghorst and Antony showing a particularly singular drive to unsettle the Betis backline. After winning the ball from the away team’s throw in deep in their own half, United were able to work the ball to the left flank to set up another cross for Weghorst, with the referee mistakenly giving a goal kick.
Rather than complain, United simply won the ball straight back again and slipped Rashford through for a one-on-one with the goalkeeper, but Bravo was quick off his line to claim the ball.
Real Betis did very little to threaten the Red Devils in the opening half hour, often trying to patiently probe their way through United to no avail. They did manage to win a corner about 22 minutes in, from which they made a half-hearted penalty appeal for a Weghorst handball. The referee correctly judged the ball to have hit the Dutchman’s chest.
Weghorst almost put the ball in the net a second time from an Antony cross, with the Brazilian popping up on the left 27 minutes in, but he skied it over. His blushes were spared when the cameras revealed that he would have been offside anyway, but it was an attempt indicative of his goalscoring record during his short time in a United shirt.
Rashford almost doubled the lead two minutes later after another high turnover, but Bravo was alert once more. Generally happy to come off his line, the Chilean was especially proactive whenever United looked for the through ball this evening.
The first dangerous attack from Betis came in the 32nd minute, when a diagonal into Juanmi from Guido Rodriguez had the backline panicking. The Spaniard switched play decisively to Ayoze Perez, on loan from Leicester City. Luke Shaw was far too slow getting out to him and Perez’s cross-come-shot found the bottom corner as David de Gea scrambled. One shot on target, one goal. Familiar territory for De Gea at present.
With the scores now level, Pellegrini’s side started to play with more confidence, pressing higher up the pitch and, at times, enjoying decent spells of possession in United’s defensive third. They won a handful of set pieces in good crossing positions, but United defended them well enough.
United got some semblance of control back in the minutes before the interval and managed to unleash Rashford down the left flank, whose square pass to Antony ended up saved. Once again, however, the away side’s offside trap would have seen a goal ruled out had it gone in.
Betis’ pressing led to a frankly ludicrous pass from De Gea, directly to an attacker in green and white. The resultant shot hit the post, but it was a clear indication that the keeper was off the pace.
Going into half time at 1-1 will no doubt have annoyed Ten Hag. Manchester United could easily have been three or four goals to the good within the opening 30 minutes, but a general lack of composure in the penalty area, with attackers seemingly put off easily by Bravo’s rushes off his line, let Betis off the hook. It’s almost as if Man United’s offensive players only train against goalkeepers who stay rooted to their line.
At half time, Ten Hag substituted Diogo Dalot for Aaron Wan-Bissaka as the snow kicked up into a storm at Old Trafford.
Real Betis pressed high and with intensity after the interval, leading to a couple of close calls for Lisandro Martinez and De Gea. But United were dangerous winning the ball in midfield themselves, leading to an absolutely beautiful curler from Antony to beat Bravo and make it 2-1 with 51 minutes played.
There have been many United fans who have called Antony a ‘one-trick pony,’ but it is one hell of a trick when it works.
The first yellow card of the game came three minutes later, when Weghorst was adjudged to have been too forceful in pressuring a Betis defender. There did not appear to be much wrong with the challenge, but it put the towering centre forward on thin ice.
Luke Shaw’s delivery from set pieces has markedly improved this season, and his excellent near post corner led to a powerful header from Bruno Fernandes to make it 3-1. The header was almost straight at the goalkeeper, but the sheer force of it had Bravo beaten.
Tails up, United kept attacking – even Wan-Bissaka had a pot shot. Shortly after the hour mark, a lovely move in United’s inside-right channel saw Bruno slip through Antony in the box. The Brazilian went for the chip when he probably should have squared it, with the resultant effort ending up too high.
Rashford was withdrawn at the 64th for Jadon Sancho, with Tyrell Malacia replacing Shaw. The latter had appeared fairly leggy and may well have been carrying a knock. In any case, Ten Hag essentially replaced his entire left flank with the double substitution, suggesting he was not happy with United’s game on that side.
He was almost rewarded immediately, with Sancho dribbling to the corner of the six-yard box, opening up his bag of tricks to flummox the Betis backline, and setting up Fred for a shot which was, regrettably, tame.
There was drama next as Fernandes challenged Bravo for the ball during an attempt to press. The Portugal captain caught the keeper’s shin and was booked, with several members of the La Liga side asking for a sending off. Given that Bruno caught Bravo with his toe rather than his studs, a yellow was probably the correct decision.
Another quick break gave Weghorst yet another golden opportunity to get on the scoresheet, but Pezzela was able to block his effort from the floor as the Dutch striker took too long to get his shot off.
He did make an excellent contribution winning the ball from William Carvalho 79 minutes in before playing an excellent ball into Antony’s path with the outside of his boot. The Brazilian could not beat the goalkeeper on this occasion, however, with Bravo again quick to rush out.
Scott McTominay and Facundo Pellistri replaced Fred and Antony 10 minutes from normal time before a United corner. Bruno Fernandes found the young Uruguayan on the edge of the box, got to the byline, and provided a cool cutback for Scott McTominay. His shot was saved. Weghorst’s wasn’t.
Finally the on-loan striker had his goal, and Ten Hag will no doubt have been pleased to have seen both substitutes making an instant impact. Having watched Weghorst come so close to scoring so frequently this evening, the manager will likely be even more pleased to see his centre forward’s efforts rewarded. Pouncing on the rebound, exactly as a striker should, it was a reward well-earned.
Now at 4-1, United were strutting their stuff. Pellistri was a menace on the right, showing good ball retention despite his enthusiasm in running at defenders. On one occasion, he managed to beat his marker and lay the ball off for Casemiro, whose long-range effort went narrowly wide. In injury time, Pellistri almost scored himself. The winger broke in behind and took aim at the far corner, but a deflection off the Betis defender took enough pace off the shot to help Bravo along with the save.
It was clear that the Red Devils were chasing a fifth goal, but despite having four minutes of additional time and a couple of chances from set pieces, it never came.
A three goal lead will have to do when Manchester United travel to the Estadio Benito Villamarín for the second leg.