When the draw was made back in December, the feeling at Manchester United was that they couldn’t have been dealt a more difficult opponent in the Europa League round of 32 after crashing out of the Champions League.
Real Sociedad, who back then had been flying high in La Liga, were reasoned to be a tougher test than many would have hoped for. But if the Spanish side represent the best of what is left in this competition, then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side should be feeling confident of their pathway to the final after a ruthless 4-0 first-leg win on Thursday night.
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After a couple of disappointing performances in the Premier League, it was a perfect display from a rejuvenated United XI spearheaded by their talisman Bruno Fernandes.
When he joined Manchester United, his aim was to help the club on the biggest stages and bring back the glory days. They’re not quite there yet but a comfortable win in Turin has seen them move another step closer. The only disappointing aspect, from Fernandes’ perspective at least, is that he has talent that belongs in the Champions League and not in this competition.
With Marcus Rashford initially fluffing his lines, hitting a very good chance straight at Alex Remiro in the 18th minute, it was down to Fernandes to break the deadlock.
United had been on top with their perfectly timed runs causing problems for the Sociedad backline. It was Fernandes who demonstrated great vision and foresight, as well as ability, for his first of the evening.
As he saw the Sociedad defenders clatter into one another as well as the goalkeeper Remiro, he remained calm, controlled the ball and fired into the empty net with his right foot.
Solskjaer had made changes for this tie, with Newcastle at home in the league coming up at the weekend, but Fernandes was never going to get a rest. He is the heartbeat of this team and he linked the play between the fluid front line of Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Daniel James perfectly.
The manager had wanted his forwards to get ‘good service’ and to attack quickly and he wasn’t disappointed. They moved the ball with ease creating chance after chance.
Solskjaer didn’t celebrate Fernandes’ opener but he was on his feet for his second United goal - a lovely orchestrated move started by Rashford and perfectly put away by Fernandes via a touch from James for his 21st goal of the season.
United knew they were going to get chances on the counter to exploit the space behind Sociedad’s backline and, where they have failed in recent weeks to time their runs, every attack on the night was timed to perfection.
James, Greenwood and Rashford roamed across the three attacking positions creating chance after chance and between them had only one offside all night. The only negative is that they didn’t score more after having 10 shots on the target over the 90 minutes.
The United manager had been left answering questions in recent weeks about his strikers' lack of goalscoring form but Rashford got the goal his performance deserved with a great strike to finish another quick United counter.
On that occasion, it was Fred with the defence-splitting pass. Where Rashford had fluffed his lines earlier in the game, he made no mistake with his finish. It was his seventh European goal of the campaign and only Erling Haaland has more with eight.
James thought he’d got the fourth of the evening only to be denied by VAR but he got redemption with a brilliant individual goal in the 89th minute to polish off what was a solid performance from the Welshman on his first start since January 9.
This was a fixture that had the potential to be a banana skin for United. They were winless against Spanish opponents in their last nine attempts before this game, in mixed form in the league and effectively out of the title race.
There is real pressure for them to deliver on this stage. It was a professional display that showed that they still have life left in them in Europe this season. They were strong, clinical, dominant and, after a couple of scary defensive moments in the first two minutes, solid at the back.
Solskjaer wants silverware to help push this team to the next level and if they can carry on producing performances like they did in Turin on Thursday night, they’ll find themselves favourites to be lifting the trophy in May.
It’s not the European trophy they set out to win this season but it could be an important piece of the puzzle for building success going forward.