Same players, very different score. For Manchester United, it was a 10-goal swing in the space of four days as the quest to make amends for the historic humiliation at Anfield began promisingly. Demolished 7-0 by Liverpool, they beat Real Betis 4-1 and the dramatic shift in fortunes was personified by Bruno Fernandes.
Villain for some on Merseyside, it was easier to brand him hero here. After the petulance and the push on the assistant referee came the productivity and purpose that rendered him such a talisman. The Portuguese kept the captaincy, with the aid of an endorsement from Erik ten Hag, and the manager could sense some vindication for deeming Fernandes inspirational. This time he led by the right sort of example, with a goal, an assist and a part in Marcus Rashford’s opener.
A bullet header from Luke Shaw’s corner brought a first goal in nine games; however, it meant much more than that and the Portuguese cupped his hands to his ears in celebration. There was a message to his critics there. There was one from the United crowd, too, amid an air of forgiveness. The players’ names were all cheered when announced. Fernandes was the first to be serenaded and “Bruno” echoed around Old Trafford when he scored. Supporters called for the Glazers to go, but not any of those directly responsible for Liverpool’s seven goals.
Perhaps the supporters put the Anfield evisceration in the context of a season of progress. It could yet yield three trophies and United take a three-goal lead to Seville for next week’s Europa League second leg. Unlike on Sunday, their performance was underpinned by the right attitude. They were positive and energetic, starting at speed and showing a relentlessness thereafter. They amassed 24 shots and the margin of victory could have been rather greater.
After conceding six goals in the second half at Anfield, they scored three which, after Ayoze Perez had equalised, altered the complexion of a tie with a team who held Real Madrid at the weekend. It was the desired response. Ten Hag’s teamsheet may have been a statement of sorts. He stuck with the same 11 and if unchanged teams can be staples of unbeaten runs, this was sent out on a quest for redemption. There was no shock Rashford set the tone: he invariably has this season. A sixth-minute opener was an immediate response to sieving seven. It was taken emphatically.
Rashford’s 18th goal in 22 games was a rasping shot that flew into the roof of the net. Casemiro’s celebration was instructive, with the Brazilian both urging the crowd to be louder and clasping his hands together in apology.
Even before Rashford struck, Wout Weghorst had a goal chalked off. The Dutchman’s quest for a belated second United strike belatedly ended, 12 games after his first and after a litany of misses, when he converted the rebound when Scott McTominay had a shot parried. After his outing as a No. 10 at Anfield, Weghorst was back leading the line: the same side nevertheless contained positional switches to bring the best from the Dutchman, Rashford, who was on the left, and Fernandes, restored to his favourite central role.
They encountered some unexpected resistance. Claudio Bravo, who saved too few shots in his time in the Manchester City goal, was in defiant form. He twice denied the electric Rashford, brilliantly stopped Antony from doubling his tally and made a fine save from McTominay, only for Weghorst to strike. Meanwhile, Fernandes was ubiquitous. Having escaped unpunished for his indiscretions at Anfield, he was booked for a lunge at Bravo. It may have been too conspicuous a show of commitment but much of his impact was laudable.
He found Antony when the Brazilian, who had delivered the winner against Barcelona in the last round, turned the scourge of another Spanish side, curling a shot past a motionless Bravo. Then Fernandes rendered it a restorative occasion for him by scoring the type of goal he rarely does.
For Betis, however, it was a poor goal to concede, especially given their clean sheet against Real Madrid. On Manuel Pellegrini’s return to Manchester, they had mounted a comeback of their own, levelling when Perez drove a half-volley into the far corner of the United net. Having failed to score in the Premier League this season, the loanee from Leicester struck on his first return to England. There was a suspicion Juanmi handled before finding Perez but Betis came agonisingly close to leading. A deflected Perez cross hit the post just before the break.
Their supporters were both vocal and colourful, with a corner of green and white at Old Trafford, for one of the biggest European games in their history. Driving, swirling snow made these alien conditions for the Andalucians. For United, the climate may be changing. Spanish sides have eliminated them from Europe each in the last five seasons and Real Sociedad won at Old Trafford in the group stages. But Betis could now join Barcelona among United’s scalps. Their new nemesis, less pleasingly for them, may instead be Liverpool.
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