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Man Utd, Ajax squeeze into Europa League fi­nal

New Straits Times - - Sport -

MANCH­ESTER

MANCH­ESTER United sur­vived a size­able scare to reach their first Europa League fi­nal af­ter a nervy 1-1 draw with Celta Vigo on Thurs­day com­pleted a 2-1 ag­gre­gate vic­tory.

Jose Mour­inho’s side will play a youth­ful Ajax team in the fi­nal at Stock­holm’s Friends Arena on May 24, when they can com­plete their tro­phy col­lec­tion and — per­haps more im­por­tantly — book a place in next sea­son’s Cham­pi­ons League.

Ajax ad­vanced to their first Euro­pean fi­nal in 21 years de­spite a 3-1 de­feat to Lyon in France, the Dutch side pro­gress­ing 5-4 on ag­gre­gate.

Marouane Fel­laini’s 17thminute header put United 2-0 up on ag­gre­gate, but Celta hit back late on through Fa­cundo Roncaglia, who was then sent off along with United’s Eric Bailly fol­low­ing a cen­tre-cir­cle shov­ing con­test.

“We suf­fered un­til the end and it was open un­til the last sec­ond,” United man­ager Mour­inho told BT Sport.

“Af­ter 14 matches we are in the fi­nal. If we win the Europa League I am more than happy. It would be amaz­ing.”

Mour­inho will have to do with­out in­flu­en­tial cen­tre-back Bailly, whose sus­pen­sion leaves Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Da­ley Blind as United’s only avail­able cen­tral de­fend­ers.

With Mour­inho hav­ing pub­licly aban­doned hope of a top-four fin­ish in the Premier League, af­ter his side fell four points off the Cham­pi­ons League berths, United’s sea­son would have ef­fec­tively been over had they gone out.

In­stead they have a chance to add a sec­ond big tro­phy to the League Cup won in Fe­bru­ary and al­low Mour­inho to end a com­pli­cated maiden cam­paign as man­ager by win­ning the fourth ma­jor Euro­pean hon­our of his ca­reer.

Ap­pear­ing in their first Euro­pean semi-fi­nal, Ed­uardo Ber­izzo’s Celta gave United sev­eral un­com­fort­able mo­ments and there was panic in the hosts’ box dur­ing the fraught clos­ing stages.

Both man­agers re­verted to the teams that had started last week’s first leg, which meant a United re­turn for Paul Pogba, whose world-record trans­fer from Ju­ven­tus is be­ing in­ves­ti­gated by Fifa.

United started shak­ily, with Blind look­ing par­tic­u­larly un­cer­tain, and there were early mur­murs of con­cern around Old Traf­ford when Iago As­pas cut in from the right and obliged Ser­gio Romero to tip his rasp­ing shot over.

An au­da­cious jug­gling show from Pogba roused the crowd and United tight­ened their grip on the tie when Mar­cus Rash­ford’s sump­tu­ous cross from the left was headed in at the back post by Fel­laini.

The goal had the ef­fect of free­ing United from their shack­les, with Hen­rikh Mkhi­taryan, Jesse Lin­gard and Pogba all ar­row­ing shots over the bar.

But Celta served re­minders of their threat as the first half drew to a close, Pablo Her­nan­dez, Pione Sisto and John Guidetti work­ing Romero and Daniel Wass head­ing wide from Sisto’s dan­ger­ous drilled cross.

Celta con­tin­ued to probe in the sec­ond half, with Guidetti thrash­ing inches wide from Sisto’s lay­off and head­ing off-tar­get from Mallo’s cross.

Roncaglia’s loop­ing 85thminute header set the scene for a nerve-wrack­ing fi­nale, but de­spite los­ing Bailly, United held on.

Ajax, mean­while, looked to have killed their tie against Lyon fol­low­ing their 4-1 win in last week’s home leg when Kasper Dol­berg gave them a 27th-minute lead.

But a quick-fire dou­ble right at the end of the first pe­riod from Alexan­dre La­cazette — the first from the penalty spot — gave the French side hope.

Sub­sti­tute Rachid Ghez­zal’s heav­ily de­flected header nine min­utes from time made it 3-1 on the night and Dutch in­ter­na­tional Nick Viergever’s send­ing-off gave Lyon ex­tra im­pe­tus.

But they could not find an al­limpor­tant fourth to send the tie into ex­tra-time.

In­stead, Ajax will play their first fi­nal in this com­pe­ti­tion since win­ning the tro­phy in 1992 and their first Euro­pean fi­nal since los­ing to Ju­ven­tus in the Cham­pi­ons League in 1996.

“It was a strange evening that had started well,” said Ajax coach Peter Bosz.

“There was noth­ing go­ing on un­til the last minute of the first half, when ev­ery­thing went wrong.

“Lyon pressed hard and got chances un­til the fi­nal whis­tle. But over the two games I think our qual­i­fi­ca­tion was de­served.”

Lyon coach Bruno Ge­n­e­sio added: “There’s a lot of frus­tra­tion this evening but our re­grets are all to do with the away match.” AFP

REUTERS PIC

Ajax play­ers cel­e­brate af­ter qualifying for the Europa League fi­nal on Thurs­day.

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