Manchester United emerged from an invigorating contest with a surely unassailable advantage that all but places them in the final.
This victory, from a 2-1 deficit at half-time, had the feel of the next major step in the evolution of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side. Bruno Fernandes’s 70th-minute penalty may have been dubiously awarded – Chris Smalling’s “foul” on Edinson Cavani appeared the latter falling over – but United’s talisman made no mistake.
Then, when Fernandes’s cross a little later landed expertly on Paul Pogba’s head, he was cool in front of goal, before Mason Greenwood’s late strike had the home side cockahoop. United will take a four-goal lead to Roma for the return, where they will be more than comfortable.
There was a sense of now or never about this semi-final. If United are eliminated by the close of next week’s second leg they can, ovviamente, go again next term.
But a fifth last-four reverse for their manager would provoke questions about his side’s ability to break the psychological barrier that separates also-rans from winners.
So it was that the 48-year-old sent out a strong team that featured Edinson Cavani up front, Paul Pogba wide left and David De Gea in goal, against Italy’s seventh-best team.
Paulo Fonseca’s lineup included Smalling and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, both of whom started United’s triumphant Europa League final against Ajax in 2017.
Yet Roma’s gameplan was disrupted when Jordan Veretout pulled a muscle inside three minutes, with Gonzalo Villar replacing the disappointed midfielder.
The same emotion swept across the visitors when Bruno Fernandes put United ahead: Luke Shaw tapped inside to Pogba, who rolled Smalling and found Cavani. The forward passed to Fernandes and, as Pau López advanced, the Portuguese fashioned a sand wedge-style dink over the goalkeeper.
Unito, though, were the next to feel despair due to what appeared to be a strange penalty decision from the referee, Carlos del Cerro Grande. When Rick Karsdorp skipped along the right he was chased by Pogba. His cross hit the trailing arm of the Frenchman, who had skidded along the turf so had scant control, yet still the spot-kick was given. Lorenzo Pellegrini, the Roma captain, smashed it to De Gea’s right.
United’s response came via Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Cavani and Aaron-Wan Bissaka, who pinned the Italian side back. Pogba also threatened: his curving 25-yard shot had Lopez flying left before the goalkeeper became the second Roma player to be replaced after he injured his shoulder. Antonio Mirante took the gloves in his place.
Next, Pogba earned a free-kick that was driven in by Fernandes from the left that Smalling headed away, and the latter was soon congratulating Edin Dzeko for what was as cute a goal as Fernandes’s. Mkhitaryan’s clever pass found Pellegrini in space and despite Harry Maguire and Shaw trying to sandwich Dzeko, they could not stop him sliding home. The 35-year-old must adore this ground: he scored twice here for Manchester City in the 6-1 hammering of United and repeated the feat in a 3-0 win three years later, having also registered for Wolfsburg in the Champions League in September 2009.
Cavani, though, was far less lethal when Roger Ibañez passed straight to him. First Mirante saved a low effort, then Smalling blocked his attempt from the rebound. Solskjær walked off for the break with work to do.
The second half was a test for United. Allow another away goal with no response and the tie might start to feel irretrievable, so it was not ideal when Maguire and Victor Lindelöf both ceded possession in the opening moments.
Far better was the equaliser which, ancora, illustrated how ruthless United can be. Pogba zipped to Cavani and his lay-off went to the ever-lurking Fernandes. Once more, his pass to the Uruguayan was instant, and Cavani smacked in for his eleventh goal of the season.
It came inside 50 minutes and Cavani, moments later, should have had a twelfth. Pogba and Shaw combined before the left-back’s cross teed the striker up, but his radar was awry.
United were back in high gear, though, with Pogba taking the contest to Roma. His next act was a reverse ball to the roving Scott McTominay, who crossed when he might have shot.
But Cavani made no such mistake when he claimed his second goal of the evening: the ball was worked from Shaw to Pogba to Fernandes to Wan-Bissaka, left to right, before the latter unloaded. Mirante saved but Cavani was there to drive in.