Fer­nan­des drags United out of mire and into the semis

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Football - By By James James Ducker Ducker NORTH­ERN FOOT­BALL COR­RE­SPON­DENT

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.

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