Manchester United may have progressed through to the Europa League final after a 1-1 draw on Thursday night, but the frantic finale to the game at Old Trafford has cost them dearly.
After Celta Vigo’s equaliser, a bust-up between the two teams saw Eric Bailly, easily United’s most impressive defender this season, lose his cool and get sent off for a swipe at Vigo striker John Guidetti.
2 - Eric Bailly has now been sent off twice in the Europa League in 2016/17, more than any other player in the competition. Mist.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 11, 2017
It seems remarkable that a player with no Premier League experience going into this season has completely outshone more proven defenders at the club, but then again, Jose Mourinho has always had an eye for defensive talent.
Bailly was Mourinho’s first signing as United manager, for £30 million, and he’s more than lived up to his price tag.
Awful that Eric Bailly will miss the Europa League final, given that he’s by far Manchester United’s best defender. A huge miss.— Liam Canning (@LiamPaulCanning) May 11, 2017
Indeed, despite a brief spell on the sidelines earlier in the season which allowed Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo to have a period where they looked like an excellent centre-back pairing, the 23-year-old has been at the heart of every successful defensive partnership this season.
Whether it’s been alongside Rojo, Chris Smalling, or Daley Blind, the Ivorian has been the man who has given United’s back four solidity.
Indeed, it was telling that a bruising striker like Watford’s Troy Deeney critiqued the Arsenal defence by saying it had a “soft centre” with no defender that strikers would fear, Bailly was the player he used as a contrast.
Troy Deeney: “There's no one in that Arsenal team that you fear, they don't have an Eric Bailly." pic.twitter.com/kK6k6QOtk3— CaughtOffside (@caughtoffside) April 29, 2017
The stats back up his reputation, not only as United’s best but as one of the best in the Premier League. While Chelsea duo Gary Cahill and David Luiz were the ones who made it into the PFA Team of the Year, Bailly has better numbers across just about every defensive metric.
He beats the duo in tackles, percentage of total duels won, interceptions, blocks, clearances, and fewest defensive errors.
In fact, Bailly’s on par with the other two defenders regarded among the best in the league – Spurs pair Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. Bailly leads the duo in tackles, interceptions, and defensive errors, and splits them when it comes to duels, blocks, and clearances.
His absence in the Europa League final against Ajax will thus be a tough blow to United. To whom should they turn to as a replacement?
Blind looks set to retain his spot in the starting XI, and with Rojo, United’s other standout defender this season, out with a long-term injury, the choice for the other defender boils down to Smalling vs Jones.
The duo have had injury-hit campaigns, and Smalling seems to have regressed from the form he found under Louis Van Gaal which saw him look like one of England’s best defenders, and get elevated to the status as the Red Devils’ vice-captain.
Jones, whose whole United career has been blighted by injuries, has actually looked better this season than at any other point in his United career, barring perhaps his debut campaign.
The former Blackburn Rovers man filled in admirably for Bailly earlier in the season, looking assured alongside Rojo in a partnership that surprised most observers.
Statistically, both defenders would have a case to start the final. Smalling leads Jones in blocks (0.77 to 0.55 per 90 minutes) and clearances (8.95 to 8.15), but Jones is better in tackles (1.37 to 0.69), aerial duels (71.43% to 67.16%), total duels (64.55% to 60.82%), interceptions (1.78 to 0.77), and fewer defensive errors (0.07 to 0.17).
Looking at the numbers, Smalling seems to be the better backs-to-the-wall defender, which could suit Jose Mourinho if the United manager opts for a defensive gameplan again in the final.
Against Ajax’s free-flowing style, however, Jones’ better one-on-one defending and superior reading of the game would be more useful. With Kasper Dolberg, Bertrand Traore, and Amin Younes ready to run riot, this could be the perfect opportunity for Jones to begin to live up to Sir Alex Ferguson’s infamous claim that the then-21-year-old could become United’s best-ever player.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man?
In this column, we track the best Arab football talents plying their trade in Europe and round-up their accomplishments and stories over every week.
AS Roma star Mohamed Salah is never far from the headlines, especially this season due to his scintillating form, and he features in our column this week.
Roma put four past AC Milan with Mohamed Salah a constant threat.
The winger was in top form and in the eighth minute executed a superb one-two with Edin Dzeko on the edge of the box who then capped the move with an excellent curling finish into the top corner to break the deadlock.
The Egyptian dribbled into the box in the closing stages only to be hauled down by defender Gabriel Paletta and Roma captain Daniele De Rossi converted the spot-kick to complete the 4-1 win.
MOMENT OF MAGIC
Playing his 100th Premier League game, Riyad Mahrez marked it with a quite brilliant goal in Leicester City’s 3-0 win over Watford.
Last year’s PFA Player of the Year closed down Adrian Mariappa, won the ball off him, and proceeded into the penalty box at pace. From an impossible angle, the Algerian then nonchalantly nutmegged Heurelho Gomes in the Watford goal to score Leicester’s second of the game in the 58th minute.
Not a bad way to score your 12th goal of the season. Take a bow, Riyad.
Golden Boy Sobhi?
Stoke City’s Ramadan Sobhi has been nominated for the Golden Boy award for 2017. The prestigious accolade is given to the best player in Europe under the age of 21.
The Egyptian joins some stellar names in the list of nominees including AS Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe, Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma, Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus and Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford.
The 20-year-old has made 17 appearances for Stoke’s first team this season and has bagged two assists.
Salah receives death threats
Along with teammates Radja Nainggolan and Daniele de Rossi, Salah was the victim of anonymous death threats ahead of Sunday’s match against AC Milan in Serie A.
Following Roma’s defeat to Lazio last week, three dummies dressed in the jerseys of the aforementioned players were found hanging in the Colosseum area.
The message translated from Italian read: “Some advice with no offense … always sleep with the lights on.”
Benatia victim of racial slur
During a live interview on Italian television network Rai, Mehdi Benatia overheard someone racially abusing him through his earpiece.
The Juventus defender on loan from Bayern Munich this season abruptly cut-off mid-sentence when he heard the comment.
According to the Mirror, the defender responded out loud, “What are you saying, s****y Moroccan?”
Benatia was angered by the racial slur and proceeded to question about its source. The network later issued a public apology.
After a 100 games in the league, Mahrez has put together a fine record from midfield, being directly involved in a goal once in every 2.27 games.
Riyad Mahrez's record in the Premier League:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 6, 2017
100 games 🏃
27 goals ⚽️
17 assists 🅰️
ON THE MOVE
With Sunderland relegated to the Championship, several players will be looking for a new club in the summer. One of them will surely be Wahbi Khazri according to The Chronicle.
The Tunisian, has been strangely left out of the squad of late under David Moyes. Being one of their most creative players, Khazri is likely disgruntled by his situation and on the look out for a new club.
Marcus Rashford’s clever free-kick in the 67th minute gave Manchester United the advantage as they secured a hard-fought 1-0 win at Celta Vigo in the first leg of the Europa League semi-final on Thursday.
Sergio Alvarez kept the visitors at bay with a series of saves to deny Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard but was finally undone by the young striker’s effort.
As the two sides prepare to meet again at Old Trafford for the second leg on May 11, here’s a look at what we learned from the first leg.
UNITED SHOULD BE OUT OF SIGHT
On the surface, a 1-0 win away from home in the first leg of a European semi-final is a fantastic result and had you offered that to Jose Mourinho before the game, he’d have been tempted to take it. However, the truth is the visitors should already have one foot in the final but their finishing let them down, again.
Sergio Alvarez must be given credit for the saves he made in Celta’s goal but apart from Rashford’s stunning strike from outside the box in the 20th minute, every other save he made might never have been with better finishing.
Lingard and Mkhitaryan in particular should’ve done better with the opportunities they were afforded. United hold the advantage but its a slender one and they may yet live to regret those wasted chances.
20': Marcus Rashford ❌— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 4, 2017
35': Henrikh Mkhitaryan ❌
39': Jesse Lingard ❌
Three big saves from Sergio Álvarez in the Celta Vigo goal so far. pic.twitter.com/Nut98ll7qp
RASHFORD STEPPING OUT OF IBRA’S SHADOW
Once Zlatan Ibrahimovic was sidelined by injury, the onus was always on the 19-year-old to step up and deliver. Over the last few weeks, he hasn’t been fazed by that added responsibility at all. In fact, like the big Swede, he seems to thrive under the pressure rather than be crippled by it.
Once again, he looked like the most likely to score for United. His effort in the 20th minute when he cut inside and curled a strike towards the far post was sublime and superbly saved by Alvarez. After winning the free-kick, he took it upon himself to strike it and gave United a crucial away goal.
Rashford is very much United’s main man at the moment and will be paramount to them ending the season on a successful note. The very fact that Mourinho is putting this much faith in youngster speaks volumes.
POGBA COULD BE KEY IN RETURN LEG
Celta Vigo’s high-pressing game was evident in this first leg and considering that they are now chasing the tie, that won’t change when they travel to Old Trafford.
Apart from that early chance when Wass, inexplicably unmarked, headed wide from near point-blank range, United largely contained Celta’s advances. The hosts also ended up leaving holes in midfield and defence, ones that Paul Pogba always threatened to exploit.
The Frenchman was the perfect candidate to burst into space, carrying the ball forward with his long strides every time possession turned over. A prime example was when he managed to find space and play in Mkhitaryan with a throughball in the 35th minute that deserved a better finish from the Armenian. With Celta chasing the game in Manchester, Pogba may have similar chances to unlock the La Liga outfit’s defence.