Fernandes drags United out of mire and into the semis
It is easy to forget the burden on Bruno Fernandes’s shoulders when he arrived at Manchester United in late January.
The storm clouds were circling again after back-to-back league defeats by Liverpool and Burnley and, privately, there were concerns within Old Trafford that attempts to depict their new £47 million signing as some sort of white knight, here to rescue the team’s troubled season, constituted undue pressure.
Fernandes may not have been a panacea for all of United’s shortcomings – this side remain very much a work in progress – but it is hard to think of too many other players who have had quite such a transformative effect on a team this season.
No one has done more to drag this bunch out of the mire than Fernandes and, once again, he was their saviour on a frantic night in searing heat in Cologne, when United needed an extra-time penalty from their Portugal playmaker and new darling to see off the stubborn resistance of Copenhagen.
United had found their route to goal blocked by a combination of the brilliance of the Copenhagen goalkeeper, Karl-Johan Johnsson, and their own wastefulness but, just five minutes into extra time, the outstanding Anthony Martial won a penalty and, well, the imperious Fernandes did the rest.
It was the 21st penalty United have been awarded this term – more than any other side in Europe’s top five leagues – and, while Fernandes opted against his usual hop, skip and jump, the outcome was still the same. Johnsson had kept out almost everything United had chucked at him, but he was powerless to prevent Fernandes’ penalty from nestling into the side of the net, his seventh successful spot-kick for United.
“He knows that keepers will wait for him to do the jump. He practises both of them and he practises both sides, so he’s got them sorted,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the United manager, said. “He’s better than I was anyway!”
United’s reward is a third successive semi-final of the season and Solskjaer will hope, after defeats by Manchester City and Chelsea in the League Cup and FA Cup respectively, that his team can go one better on Sunday against either Wolves or Sevilla, who meet tonight.
“Two good teams,” he said. “We know everything about Wolverhampton. I had a [round-of-32 tie] with Molde against Sevilla [that I lost in 2016], so I’ve got something to get back at them so I don’t mind [who we get].”
With Champions League qualification already secured, an added layer of pressure had been removed for United, although you would not necessarily have known it. At least until United started to take a foothold in the game as the hour mark approached, they had been nervy, unconvincing and flat.
Mohammed Daramy’s pace and movement had asked questions and United were moving the ball too slowly in the final third and struggling to exploit the width outside. Half-time came at the wrong time for United, though. Mason Greenwood scored with a superb finish, only to be ruled offside, and Solskjaer’s men had just started to emerge from their slumber at that point, but the game would burst into life in the second half.
Copenhagen were compact and well organised but, as they were eventually pushed deeper and deeper and fatigue started to rear its head, they were soon indebted to Johnsson for dragging the game into extra time. Greenwood and Fernandes had both rattled a post before the goalkeeper became a persistent thorn in United’s side.
Not before Copenhagen had given United a huge fright, though. After lovely trickery from Rasmus Falk to take out Brandon Williams and Fred, the Copenhagen forward squared to Jonas Wind who, in turn, teed the ball up for Bryan Oviedo on his left shoulder. For a fleeting moment, Oviedo must have had visions of a repeat of his second-half winner for Everton against United at Old Trafford in 2013, but Aaron Wan-Bissaka got himself between the goal and the ball.
Thereafter, United unloaded on Copenhagen. Fernandes found his
passing range and kept pulling Copenhagen open and, up front, Martial’s pace and incisive, driving runs wreaked havoc.
This was the centre-forward Solskjaer had always hoped to see and, although Martial’s finishing for once deserted him on the night, his confidence and hunger has reached new levels. One bullet of a shot was heading for the top corner only for Johnsson to make a superb diving save late on in normal time.
Solskjaer brought on Juan Mata and the Spaniard’s introduction, coupled with Fernandes and Martial’s creativity and drive, lifted United.
After a lovely shuffle of the feet from Martial from Fernandes’s pass, the Copenhagen goalkeeper denied the Frenchman again. Down on the ground at that point, Martial must have wondered what he had to do to beat Johnsson but, in the next passage of play, he was on his feet in time to win a penalty following a nudge from Andreas Bjelland. Soft? A touch, but Fernandes – as he does – showed no mercy.