Manchester United are in the Europa League final, but what a way to get to Gdansk.
Already four goals in front from the first leg at Old Trafford, and one ahead on the night at the Stadio Olimpico, surely they couldn’t have messed this up.
Yet for a few shaky, shocking minutes in the second half, they fell behind to Roma and were in danger of losing their grip on this tie altogether had it not been for the excellence of David de Gea.
Edinson Cavani put in another stellar performance as Man United lost in Rome but progressed to the Europa League final
The Uruguayan timed his run beautifully to head home United’s second goal in Rome and kill the tie off completely
The veteran striker left the Roma defence asking questions of themselves and sent United through to the final
Cavani clashed with Roma defenders Gianluca Mancini and Rick Karsdrop before being booked and substituted late on
David De Gea was congratulated by his opposite number Antonio Mirante after an evening full of stunning saves
The Spaniard may have lost his No.1 spot to Dean Henderson, but he reminded us last night just what a gifted goalkeeper he is. It would be a travesty if he didn’t get the nod from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer against Villarreal on May 26.
Solskjaer is through to a final at last after four semi-final defeats as United manager and he must hope that the club’s last trophy – the Europa League final win over Ajax under Jose Mourinho in 2017 – will also be their next.
Edinson Cavani and Bruno Fernandes were the other standout players for a United team who fortunately have the individual brilliance to make up for collective shortcomings.
Fernandes had a hand in both goals for Cavani who now has seven in his last six games and will be disappointed he didn’t score more on a crazy night in Rome that finished with an aggregate score of 8-5.
‘A strange game of football,’ was the verdict from Solskjaer whose captain Harry Maguire likened it to a game of basketball.
Young Polish winger Nicola Zalewski came off the bench to score Roma’s third on the night but the tie was already settled
Bryan Cristante scored a sublime long-range effort to give Roma hope of pulling off the impossible inside the Stadio Olimpico
‘It was always going to be an open game but it could have been 6-6. We kept giving them the ball and losing it in difficult positions.
‘Luckily we have one of the best goalkeepers in the world and a No.9 who wants to score goals.’
It was just as well United also had such a commanding lead from the first leg because the postponement of Sunday’s game against Liverpool amid violent protests at Old Trafford meant this game was the first of four in eight days.
‘It’s unheard of,’ added Solskjaer. ‘It’s made by people who have never played football at this level.’
Meanwhile, all the talk in Rome this week had been about Jose Mourinho’s imminent arrival as a replacement for coach Paulo Fonseca.
For a spell in the second half United appeared to be rocked and were left stunned by Roma’s quick-fire goals
MATCH FACTS AND PLAYER RATINGS
AS ROMA (4-2-3-1): Mirante 6; Karsdorp 6.5, Smalling 6 (Darboe 30, 6), Ibanez 6.5, Peres 6.5 (Santon 69, 6); Cristante 7, Mancini; 6.5 Pedro 7 (Zalewski 76, 6), Pellegrini 7.5, Mkhitaryan 7; Dzeko 7 (Mayoral 76).
Subs: Boer, Fuzato, Kumbulla, Bove, Ciervo, Darboe.
Goals: Dzeko 57, Cristante 60, Zalewski 83
Manager: Paulo Fonseca 7
MAN UTD (4-2-3-1): De Gea 8.5; Wan-Bissaka 6.5 (Williams 46, 5), Bailly 6, Maguire 6, Shaw 5.5 (Telles 46, 5); Pogba 6 (Matic 64, 6), Fred 6.5; Greenwood 6.5, Fernandes 8 (Mata 84), Van de Beek 6; Cavani 7.5 (Rashford 70, 6).
Subs: Grant, Henderson, Lindelof, Diallo, Tuanzebe, McTominay, Elanga.
Goals: Cavani 39, 68
Booked: Wan-Bissaka, Williams
Manager: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 6
Referee: Felix Brych (Germany) 7
But this club famously overturned a three-goal deficit against Barcelona at the Stadio Olimpico in 2018, and they gave it a good go on Thursday night.
De Gea made three excellent saves in the first half from Gianluca Mancini, former United man Henrikh Mkhitaryan and the lively Lorenzo Pellegrini, as well as cutting out Rick Karsdorp’s cross destined for Edin Dzeko in front of goal.
United made inroads at the other end, however, and when Cavani scored before half-time he could easily have been celebrating a hat-trick.
The Uruguayan was sent through by Fred’s pass over the top in the 20th minute but clipped the bar with a lob that ended up on the roof of the net.
Edin Dzeko had nodded home Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s cross from close range to pull Roma level at 1-1 on the evening
David De Gea had an inspired evening in goal but was powerless to prevent Dzeko’s effort nestling in the back of his goal
The former Manchester City man wasted no time in getting back to the centre circle with the ball so Roma could go again
When Fernandes played him through again with an exquisite pass off the outside of his foot six minutes later, Cavani went for power and saw his shot beaten away by Antonio Mirante.
It didn’t seem to alter his thinking when he got a third opportunity.
Fernandes was again at the heart of move, flicking Luke Shaw’s pass brilliantly into the path of Fred. The Brazilian guided it through for Cavani who once again chose power over placement, and this time Mirante couldn’t keep it out.
Solskjaer felt comfortable enough to replace both his full-backs at half-time but it only encouraged Roma to go for broke. It paid off with two goals in the space of four minutes – and it could have been even worse for United.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Michael Carrick watched on anxiously as United looked to be on the ropes during a spell
Dzeko headed in from close-range in the 57th minute after Mkhitaryan got down the left and crossed for Pedro whose volley into the turf bounced up nicely for the former Manchester City striker.
Then Pellegrini picked Fred’s pocket as he tried to be too clever on the edge of his own box, and Bryan Cristante beat De Gea with an excellent shot.
The United keeper pulled off a double save from Dzeko and Pedro, but knew little about another from Mkhitaryan as United threatened to wobble dramatically.
Cavani had got United off the mark on the evening after being played through by Bruno Fernandes and lashing the ball home
Cavani settled their nerves with a second goal which again had Fernandes’ fingerprints all over it. The Portuguese spotted his teammate’s run into the box and picked him out with a superb cross that invited the emphatic headed finish.
But Roma deserved their win and young substitute Nicola Zalewski clinched it with a close-range finish late on.
So a European campaign that began for United in the Champions League group stage in Paris last October will end in in Gdansk later this month.
Solskjaer, whose last trophy was the Norwegian Cup with Molde in 2013, has cleared the semi-final hurdle and is one step away now.