Manchester United and Sevilla will meet at Old Trafford next month with everything to play for, following a tight and intense 0-0 draw in this UEFA Champions League last-16 first leg.
Vincenzo Montella’s team, currently fifth in La Liga, enjoyed a superior percentage of possession and created far more chances on the night, however they could not beat the astonishingly good David De Gea and that failure could be pivotal ahead of the teams facing off again on 13 March.
United, naturally, wanted an away goal to take back to Manchester, yet the Reds will still be confident of victory in the second leg and progressing through to the quarter-finals of Europe’s top competition.
The Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan has earned a fearsome reputation due to Sevilla’s formidable record of only losing once since November 2016, but also because of a ferocious fan base that relishes every occasion, big or small. That was very much evident in the traditional pre-match ceremony, when the floodlights flashed on and off, while the crowd sang their club anthem with a level of conviction that has prompted some to describe this as the best atmosphere in Spain.
Those in Sevilla colours cheered an attempt at goal in just the fourth minute, when Luis Muriel’s ambitious shot from distance was expertly parried by Spain international De Gea and, 11 minutes later, ex-Manchester City man Jesus Navas dragged another shot wide from a similar range.
Jose Mourinho had started the match with a three-man midfield that consisted of Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay and Ander Herrera, but his plan was disrupted in just the 17th minute when the latter went down to ground with an injury, before exiting the pitch to be replaced by Paul Pogba.
The manager may have been forced into another first-half change when Alexis Sanchez was floored moments later, following a terrible challenge from Steven N’Zonzi but, thankfully, the no.7 escaped serious damage and the former Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City midfielder was rightly yellow carded.
United had two decent chances to score in the first half, when Romelu Lukaku shot off target and McTominay struck from 20 yards, but Sevilla shaded the opening 45 after a flurry of late chances that required De Gea to emphasise his status as the world no.1. Back in his homeland, he twice denied shots from Argentinian Joaquin Correa, before parrying powerful close-range headers from N’Zonzi and Muriel over the bar on the stroke of half time in a remarkable display, prompting two white-shirted opponents to congratulate him en route to the dressing rooms for the interval.
Sevilla began the second half in the ascendancy, by peppering a series of speculative shots from range that did not trouble the in-form De Gea, but United slowly eased into the restart and began to control more of the ball, particularly up the left flank where Alexis was working hard and with pace. The Chilean was perhaps our most dangerous forward, on his Champions League debut for the club.
Profligacy was becoming the word of the night for the hosts and their missed attempts continued to rack up after the hour, most evidently when Clement Lenglet weakly headed at De Gea from six yards, prior to the lively Correa striking off target from the edge of the penalty area moments later.
Pogba, playing on the left of the midfield three, as part of a 4-3-3 formation, sent a shot of his own wide from 25 yards as United looked for a precious away goal in Seville while the clock ticked on. To aid that bid, Mourinho introduced the pace of Anthony Martial and fit-again Marcus Rashford, who scored a famous winner in Spain during last season’s Europa League semi-final first leg at Celta Vigo.
The Reds had the ball in the back of the net, too, on 83 minutes, when Lukaku spun his marker inside the penalty area and shot past goalkeeper Sergio Rico, seemingly completing a perfect smash-and-grab outing, until the referee blew his whistle for a handball from the Belgian striker.
Perhaps sensing an opportunity, and possible tiredness, Jose’s men pushed forward again and an intricate pass from Pogba led to Rashford bending a left-footed shot wide from inside the box. The Academy graduate then blasted a thunderous free-kick just a yard off target.
Alas, the goal never came and the teams will reconvene at the Theatre of Dreams in March, with a place in the Champions League quarter-finals well and truly up for grabs.
Sevilla: Rico, Lenglet, Banega (Pizarro 89), Correa, N’Zonzi, Navaz, Sarabia, Escudero, Muriel (Ramirez 85), Vazquez, Mercado.
Subs not used: Soria, Carrico, Ben Yedder, Nolito, Roque.
United: De Gea, Valencia, Lindelof, Smalling, Young, Matic, McTominay, Herrera (Pogba 17), Mata (Martial 80), Alexis (Rashford 75), Lukaku.
Subs not used: Romero, Bailly, Darmian, Lingard.
WHAT MOURINHO SAID
“I think the only moment where we felt relieved was in the last couple of minutes in the first half, when there were a couple of our mistakes in possession and they had a couple of good situations with two David great saves and that gave this fantastic stadium the emotion that normally they have for 90 minutes. Apart from that, I was never relieved. The game was even.
“The stats are what it is. Sometimes you have 15 shots, but 13 of them were what I call 'statistic shots', so I really feel that the result reflects what the game was. You ask me, ‘is it a good result?’. I say, it’s not good, it’s not bad. We have two legs to play and we have one match to decide everything at Old Trafford. For sure, Old Trafford misses knockout Champions League. Yes, last season we had Europa League knockout, which obviously is not the same. In previous years, I think we were out in the group phase, so I think Old Trafford is a big Champions League night we want to have.”