“Bruno, Bruno” was the cry of ecstasy offered to the Manchester United talisman, whose goal here – his team’s third of the night – killed Real Betis and gave the Portuguese a touch of redemption four days after the 7-0 humiliated by Liverpool.
Fernandes’ petulant display in that horror show led to his status as United’s alternate captain being questioned, so scoring in that last-16 first leg was the perfect answer – as was the result for the United side. Erik ten Hag.
Picking the same XI that earned the wrong kind of immortality at the hands of their arch-rivals, the manager thought was an approach if it’s broken you fix a lot. It worked, although United were provisional ahead of a performance upgrade after the interval. Antony, so far, is proving to be a one-trick footballer but what an act as he once again dove to his left foot before stroking United’s second goal to calm his side down.
United were quick to win an early corner through Diogo Dalot and then impressive to score moments later. Six minutes had not passed when Bruno Fernandes’ cross, aiming for the hidden Wout Weghorst, caused Luiz Felipe to hit the bridge from behind and inadvertently tap the ball over Marcus Rashford. The striker rolled it forward and passed Claudio Bravo for his 26th goal in United colors this season.
It was a good start, but Ten Hag quickly yelled instructions at Fred and was unimpressed when a pass from David de Gea went straight to Luiz Henrique, the type of sloppy football the manager hates: the passing of the game encapsulated United’s first half in a microcosm. Then the camera cut to Ten Hag in disbelief mode after Weghorst somehow missed a classic poacher’s chance of a Luke Shaw cross after a one-two with Rashford.
United lacked a killer touch and were vulnerable to Betis’ quick pass, such as when Felipe’s burst created a corner, and another goalless De Gea clog – this time sending the ball out of play – signaled that the home team could really use a second goal. It nearly happened after a wink from Shaw turned Betis around and allowed Antony, passing on the left, to find Rashford. His effort came at Fernandes, whose own shot was deflected for a corner.
Then Betis equalized. Ayoze Pérez was found in space on the right after Juanmi placed the ball on his left arm. The on-loan Leicester striker struck a clean shot that went past De Gea in the far corner and the finish stood with VAR having no interest in intervening.
Cue the jubilation of traveling Betis fans and a grim-faced Ten Hag. Then William Carvalho claimed a corner and United were relieved when Fernandes cleared the delivery of Joaquín, the visiting 41-year-old captain. At the end of the first half, the snow swirled around and there was another close call for Ten Hag’s side after De Gea’s latest calamity caused the goalkeeper to send the ball to Juanmi . His pass found Pérez whose effort was deflected past United’s left post by Lisandro Martínez and away to safety.
Ten Hag dropped out of Anfield 11 as Aaron Wan-Bissaka took over from Dalot at right-back for the second half. The former Crystal Palace man’s opening contribution was short selling Antony with a pass. United continued to look scrappy and there was a sense of loss of confidence, which came as no surprise after the humiliation at Liverpool.
But then Antony stepped in with a carbon copy of a goal he’s netted a few times since arriving in the summer. A shoulder drop was followed by an inside jink and a floaty, coiled effort that sailed perfectly inside, hitting the inside of Bravo’s right side net.
Ten Hag hit the air and Old Trafford fans rediscovered their vocal cords as the atmosphere changed from nervous to joyous. Fernandes, who had created Antony’s goal, quickly turned goalscorer, sending a header past Bravo from a Shaw corner. The visiting keeper showed soft hands at precisely the wrong time.
The goal sent the Stretford End into a frenzy and the United captain was mobbed by happy team-mates for a player who had been unjustly slandered after the Liverpool defeat. Fernandes had not finished. A slide rule ball into Antony nearly created a fourth but the Brazilian’s dink was too high.
Antony couldn’t finish either when he came on later, as United enjoyed the closing stages, slashing possession and frustrating their opponents. But Weghorst surely put his side safely through to the quarter-finals ahead of the second leg with a goal-sniffing finish for what was only his second for the club.