This is the competition in which Manchester United cannot afford to fail, and in Marcus Rashford they have a homegrown star who seems determined to ensure that does not happen, with another winning goal on another big night.
The Europa League final in Stockholm this month is in sight, even for the great draw specialists of Old Trafford who return for the home leg next Thursday with a valuable away goal that has tipped this semi-final tie in their favour. Jose Mourinho’s route to the Champions League next season remains open and he embarked on a dash down the touchline towards the away fans when Rashford’s second half free-kick hit the net.
They were the better team against a Celta Vigo side who seemed overawed by the occasion in the end and had a forgettable night after they missed an early chance gifted to midfielder Daniel Wass. It felt a long way from the high-quality of the Champions League last four, and Ajax, who won so convincingly in their first leg in the other Europa League semi-final may well feel that they remain the form team in this competition.
United have the big guns, however, it is just that they are trundling at this point of the season. Paul Pogba was excellent in midfield and Rashford his usual unstoppable self but otherwise they needed a lot of chances eventually to score. There was an injury to Ashley Young too, who had come on as a substitute in the second half and then had to be replaced leaving Chris Smalling as the unlikely candidate to shore up the centre of midfield.
It rarely felt like a semi-final of a major European competition before the break and was more a collision between two tired squads summoning one last push to see if they could overwhelm the other. This was United’s 58th game of the season, as Mourinho has pointed out a couple of times, and it was the 55th for the home team.
That showed in Celta’s approach because they never really carried the home crowd along from the start. There had been a fine atmosphere outside the Balaidos stadium in the hours before the game but once inside the home support in this one-city club, each of them given a free half-and-half scarf, seemed to have the energy sucked out of them just as much as their team.
Celta have never been this far in a European competition in their history, and at times you wondered how they have done so this time. John Guidetti, the former Manchester City academy boy, is a fairly basic physical centre-forward. In the first half Iago Aspas played a lot like the man who disappeared without trace at Liverpool but nonetheless remains a legend in Vigo in this, his second spell at the club.
This was the period of the tie when you expected Celta to take their best shot at United but aside from a bad miss from the Danish midfielder Daniel Wass who put a header wide on 11 minutes from the cross of Serbian Nemanja Radoja, there was not much offered going forward.
By contrast, United created a series of chances and in midfield they looked solid. Paul Pogba was the pick of Jose Mourinho’s team in the first half, covering ground and tidying up turnovers of possession before driving forward himself. His ball to Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the left channel on 34 minutes was the moment of highest quality in the first half and the Armenian’s attempt to beat goalkeeper Sergio Alvarez was weak.
Mkhitaryan gave the ball away too much against a side who should not have been able to live with last season’s top performer in the Bundesliga had he been on his game. Marcus Rashford had a right-footed shot saved by Alvarez on 21 minutes. Jesse Lingard’s attempt when Rashford played him on 38 minutes was pretty woeful too. What was it Mourinho said about his team’s lack of ruthlessness in front of goal?
There might have been some minor grumbles about the state of the pitch which seemed so heavily watered that there was a greater than usual amount of spray off the ball. United did at least look in control of Celta’s attack for the most part although Eric Bailly, back in the side after injury, seemed to lose his way with Guidetti on a couple of occasions when that was duel that the United man should have come out on top of quite easily.
Even with United off the standards they might have expected, Celta seemed unable to rouse themselves after the break save a shot from Pione Sisto, another Dane, which Sergio Romero pushed over the bar just before the hour. Celta never succeeded in maintaining a sustained period of pressure and in the end the goal came from United.
Rashford had already spun once and turned his man who was barely facing in the right direction by the time the United striker had reached the Celta penalty area. Later it was a foul on the right side by the Celta captain Hugo Mallo on Rashford which led to the free-kick from which the teenager scored.
It was a brilliant strike, hit with his right foot from the right channel and across the goalkeeper Alvraez, past his right hand and in. The presence of Daley Blind also lining up as if to take the kick, who would have struck it with his preferred left, might have convinced the goalkeeper that it was going to the other side but either way it was a fine strike.
Mourinho was off down the touchline to celebrate with his own fans. He later brought off Mkhitaryan and then Rashford, the latter who seemed to be limping slightly and inflamed the Celta players with the slow pace of his walk to the touchline. There was barely a late surge from Celta at the end and save for one clumsy shove from Fellaini while on a booking United coasted to the end.
Deserved win for United but it's not a big advantage for the second leg. Celta Vigo didn't play like they were in a semi-final, United didn't ever really seem to find their stride either. 1-0 is the fairest score.
Time on ball (at full time)
Average touch positions (full time)
90 mins +5
Last chance for Celta Vigo. They hit a free-kick long into the box... and it's dreadful. United get rid of it easily and take their time.
90 mins +4
Superb from Lingard and Herrera. Herrera is on his toes, doing shuttle runs between attacking players to close them down and protect the now five man defence. Pogba stretches and wins the ball back, pings it long to Lingard and he waits for the challenge to come in to win a free-kick. United don't make use of that and keep it in the corner like you'd expect, Celta attack... and United clear. It feels like United have three goal lead but they don't. It's one.
90 mins +1
Five minutes of added time to come. Smalling is playing as a central midfielder and it looks pretty weird.
Ashley Young is sitting down and holding the back of his leg. He's now injured. Smalling is stripped off and ready to come on. Celta Vigo players are not impressed but this one looks like a genuine injury. Young pulled up after throwing himself into a blocked cross inside the box.
Ooocha beasties. Pogba has a free-kick near the half way line (about 10 yards or so from it) and spots the keeper out of position giving instructions to defenders and so punts a shot at goal. It bends just wide of the post as Alvarez desperately throws himself at it to prevent conceding an embarrassing, potentially tie-defining, second.
Ooooohhhhhhh Fellaini has put someone on the ground while challenging for the ball and the crowd want another yellow card. He's quick to protest his innocence but the referee doesn't care anyway and everything stays the same.
Sisto has just pulled off some five star Fifa 17 tricks on the left wing to go past Valencia and fire a cross into Aspas. He's one of those players you love to watch when on form but who are an utter nightmare most of the time. See also Traore, Adama, Ben Arfa, Hatem and Taraabt, Adel.
And Rashford is the player to make way for Martial. The Celta players think he's taking his time to come off but Rashford assures them he's picked up an injury. I think he's at it, personally. That's a good minute it's taken him to come off now. Excellent dark arts work from Rashford. Hargreaves thinks he's genuinely injured.
Ahhh to be fair he has come off and started pointing at his left knee. Not as in "HEY LOOK AT MY KNEE!" but as in "this is unwelcome".
Young is coming on for Mkhitaryan, who has been poor, and Anthony Martial is also getting ready to come on, though not quite yet.
Marcus Rashford curls in a free-kick to give Man Utd the lead in Spain!
— BT Sport Football (@btsportfootball) May 4, 2017
LINGAAAAARD oh he's a frustrating player to watch. So close to being quite good, he shall remain considered slightly above average until he stops missing chances like his latest effort. With head in hands, the replays show the forward thumping a volley wide of the post from inside the box. He had to hit the target.
Time on ball (60 - 75 min)
And that nearly proved a very costly mistake! Aspas fires wide of the near post as Jonny finds space inside the United box and fizzes a pass into his running path.
That away goal could prove so valuable. It doesn't really feel like a semi-final here. There's something about it - even the crowd has lost some energy. Mkhitaryan hasn't been on his game tonight, I can see him being taken off soon enough. He's just given the ball away again after some really nice passing in the middle of the pitch.
Man Utd break the deadlock thanks to a goal from Marcus Rashford - 0-1.
"Absolutely stunning!" says Owen Hargreaves as Rashford bangs a superb free-kick into the side-netting. Blind fakes to shoot on his left foot, the goalie takes a step to his left and Rashford whips the ball over the wall and into the bit of the goal that Alvarez was supposed to keeping safe. Great hit.
Rashford is sent away down the left by Pogba and tries to go past his man but fails.
Celta Vigo win a corner as Bailly can't keep the ball in play. Nothing comes of it, Mallo is booked for fouling Rashford near the box. Free-kick chance to come.
Another wasted chance. This must be so annoying for Mourinho to watch. Rashford absolutely burns away from everyone with the ball at his feet, has three man with him and four defending players out of position to run at... and hits a shot out for a throw in from outside the box.
Mourinho is clearly getting agitated on the touchline now.
Time on ball (45 - 60 min)
Great save by Romero! Celta attack quickly, Sisto cuts inside on to his right and hits one at goal. It takes a deflection and Romero has to tip it over the bar.
Theme tune to 'The A-Team' at start of 2nd half in Vigo. Like Fellaini, they consistently claimed to be accused of crimes they didn't commit
— Sam Wallace (@SamWallaceTel) May 4, 2017
Jose Mourinho is going to pity the fool who fails to take United's next big chance too - Celta are playing with a little more patience now, passing it well etween them, Radoja and Sisto link on the left, play is switched, Herrera clears. United are sitting deep in classic Mourinho "I don't want to concede" formation. The players on the bench look only slightly more unimpressed than those of us watching this.
Sisto is a lively wee player. He's out on the left wing and doing well to hold up the ball against Valencia, quick to turn away and likes to have a shot when he's got the chance. He was excellent at Midtjylland last season too if I recall correctly.
Meanwhile, Aspas has managed to get a header at goal as United's defence don't tighten up quickly enough
Lingard tries to go past a defender and dives. Get up. So annoying to watch. He could have had a little run on goal if he wasn't looking for the free-kick.
Really nice passing move from United there. They ping a few one touch passes together and Lingard wins a corner with his cross. Pogba takes forever on the ball, shielding it from the man desperately chasing him but Fellaini can't get a shot away when the ball lands at his feet and then Pogba hits what CM 01/02 would describe as a "speculative effort" from 30 yards way over the bar. Never in danger of scoring there.
Aspas is caught by Mkhitaryan with a high boot when going for an aerial 50/50, which is a longwinded way of saying that Mkhitaryan has just kicked Aspas in the leg, but the free-kick produces precisely nothing.
Celta Vigo start the second half.
The A Team
The players are back out for the second half and Celta Vigo are playing the theme from the A Team. Not the Ed Sheeran song. I don't even know if that's what the song is called, I was just trying to connect with the youth there.
Pogba's been ace
For me Clive, the best player on the pitch has been Paul Pogba. Ander Herrera has done a lot of work in midfield but Pogba has been everywhere, making some nice passes and bringing the ball forward skillfully.
United's missed chances
"I think it's the right choice of shot but I think he needs to pull it across the goalkeeper and it's an easy finish," says Michael Owen, who would almost certainly have finished both of those missed efforts by Lingard and Mkhitaryan.
No time added on! What a treat when that happens. You can already predict tomorrow's headlines - if things stay the same all we're going to hear is more Mourinho laments that his players don't take their chances. He's right, too.
Time on ball (first half)
Average touch positions (half time)
Alvarez plucks the ball out of the air as Fellaini curls a cross into the area. Owen Hargreaves reckons he's been their best player, which is probably fair. I'd argue Guidetti has looked fairly tidy on the ball and that Aspas just hasn't had the service yet - he's been great on the ball the very few times he's had it.
The shot count is similar
Celta and Man Utd are evenly matched in attack so far - the home side have fired in five shots to the visitors' five.
Fellaini wins the physical battle in another aerial duel but the home crowd don't like it and honestly, that could easily have been given as a foul. He needs to be careful. Unfortunately that is one of the behavioural traits the Belgian lacks.
Blind looks for Rashford with a long, searching high pass but the defence cuts it out. Pogba presses but can't win it back and needs support if that is to work.
AND LINGARD IS IN! Ohhhhh it's another big chance wasted!
This time Rashford is smart just outside the box, is first to the bouncing ball and sets up Lingard for a one on one shot. United need to take these chances!
And now Celta Vigo come forward and Guidetti floats it in at the back post! They could score here... but Romero is able to take control of everything and then slows play down.
It should be 1-0 to Man Utd. They can't miss chances like that.
Brilliant from Pogba as he tricks his way past a midfielder, has the pace to accelerate away from him and slides a perfect through-ball into Mkhitaryan. Mkhitaryan only has the keeper to beat but his low shot towards the far post comes straight back off Alvarez.
Yellow card for... can you guess? Have a guess.
Fellaini batters someone midair while going for the header and earns himself a yellow card. He has a three match ban in the Premier League for 'headbutting' Sergio Aguero and this referee doesn't seem to like any sort of aggressive, physical challenge.
It's a comfortable save for Romero at one end of the pitch but within seconds, Man Utd attack and Rashford just can't quite reach a sitter in the centre of the box.
Great play by Mkhitaryan on the left.
Time on ball (15 - 30 min)
Neither side taking control of the game yet
Celta having more of the ball so far, with 235 touches to 208 from Man Utd.
When Celta do attack, they do it very quickly and are hitting long, direct passes towards the forwards. At the moment United's defence aren't struggling to cut them out but it just takes one little error for it to pay off.
That's another foul throw. The ball has to go behind your head first! Can't believe all these professionals get away with it when I used to get called out playing Sunday League all the time. Not that I errrr ever foul throwed. Of course I can throw a ball properly. No, you get out of here.
Anyway, it's fairly even here in Vigo. Both teams look capable of scoring, United are making little errors in midfield that they may regret, the United front three are starting to get more involved.
Sisto has a pop from 25/30 yards but it's nowhere near troubling the goalie. I love that word.
Mkhitaryan runs in behind, rides a challenge from Mallo in the box but then stumbles as he tries to regain balance and pull the ball across goal... and it's out for a goal kick. That could quite easily have been a controversial penalty moment had Mkhitaryan thrown himself to the ground.
Water skips off the pitch as the ball is passed towards Romero in the United goal. It's hot in Spain, just that they've put a lot of water on the pitch to speed up the passing.
Celta Vigo try to attack quickly but United absorb the pressure, United attack.
Rashford is wide left, cuts on to his right, Cruyff turns back on to his left, then back to his right and HITS ONE TO THE TOP CORNERRRRRRRRR - saved! What a save from a great shot! That was curling into the top bin.
Nothing comes from the corner though.
Man Utd hit back
Man Utd register their first shot, in response to two so far from Celta.
Time on ball (0 - 15 min)
Neither Celta or Man Utd are testing the goalkeepers so far
Tense opening quarter of an hour at Balaídos, as Celta and Man Utd struggle to get shots on goal
Bailly makes a mess of his tackle on the right wing and Guidetti brings the ball forward. Celta Vigo have men over now but Aspas can't engineer room to shoot.
United break down the other end, Pogba brings the ball forward all on his own, takes on the last man after a tricky run, puts the ball round one side, tries to go around the other... and is blocked. That should be a free-kick... but it isn't. Strange decision from the referee.
Mkhitaryan just hasn't quite clicked with Rashford and Lingard upfront yet.
Pogba gives the ball away near the Celta box as he takes far too many touches, Herrera is nutmegged by Aspas... Celta have grown into this one now.
I've seen at least three foul throws in this game already and oh my word what a chance!!! Wass has just missed a glorious chance to score!
Bailly misses the header as the ball is chipped over the United defence to the back post and Wass wanders in from deep to attack inside the area! Romero was totally beaten if he'd got that on target but the ball goes well wide of the goal.
Sisto gets the ball forward to Guidetti, who turns and fires a tame effort well wide of the goal from distance. Guidetti played for Man City for seven years and said before the game that he really wants to win, because he wants to win, and because of the Man City thing.
Pogba has been good so far, in the right place at the right, controlling the tempo of the passing. Fellaini is a slightly different story but we're only a few minutes in so let's give him the benefit of the doubt.
Pogba is everywhere! United passing the ball well now... until Fellaini hits a powerful... is it a shot? Or a cross? from 10 yards away from the corner flag.
Both teams have the ball for little spells, neither has started looking particularly confident. You'd expect the play to calm down after 15 minutes but at the moment it's all very fast and frantic.
And they're off!
Here come the players
It's time for the official Europa League anthem, which isn't what it should be. It should be the song above.
A good sign for United?
Just watching #MUFC training drill & standard of finishing was brilliant. A far cry from what has been witnessed in games when pressure on
— James Ducker (@TelegraphDucker) May 4, 2017
Celta Vigo fans are fairly lively
Michael Owen: "The energy that you get when the crowd are on your side and it's impossible to stop and you resort to getting it and just kicking it long! If these fans continue with this atmosphere it will be like a 12th man tonight."
Jake Humphrey: "It's not just Celta Vigo - they've got to beat the fans as well!"
I certainly hope not.
Players warming up
Michael Owen isn't buying the "everyone is injured" line coming out of the Mourinho camp:
"I look at this Man Utd team and they're all very similar. They could have 11 players injured and have a team!"
Jose Mourinho expects a tough game
"I want to see confidence, to see the team play to win but to feel the game and feel it is hard to win and fight for a result that allows us the second leg to go at them. We want to be in the final. Long road, very difficult Premier League.
"[Eric Bailly's] playing well. It's important to have a proper central defender on the bench and having Chris on the bench means I have stability in every position. We have lots of experience on the bench, Smalling, Carrick, Rooney, Young, Mata - our bench is a bench with good personalities and experience."
Celta Vigo have rested players
This is the biggest game of the year for Celta Vigo and they fielded a weakened team at the weekend to be ready for it! United are, as we know, taking the Europa League incredibly seriously and have named a full strength starting XI to try and take back a decent result to Old Trafford.
Team news - Pogba is back!
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) May 4, 2017
Daley Blind partners Eric Bailly in defence and Marcus Rashford leads the line. The big news though is that Paul Pogba is back in the starting XI - United haven't looked quite right without him the last few games.
What is it?
It's the first leg of the Europa League semi-final, the outcome of which after next Thursday's second leg at Old Trafford on May 11 will determine which of the two teams, Celta Vigo and Manchester United, will meet the winners of the other semi-final between Ajax and Lyon in the final at the Friends Arena in Stockholm, Sweden on Wednesday, May 24.
When is it?
Inscribe Thursday, May 4 in your diary and you can eradicate all doubt and uncertainty from your mind.
What time is kick-off?
It's at the pay-TV schedule friendly time of 8.05pm (BST). As soon as the second hand strikes 12 to propel the minute hand on to five, referee Sergei Karasev will give his Acme Thunderer a toot to commence proceedings at Vigo's Estadio Municipal de Balaídos in Galicia in Spain's breathtaking north west.
What TV channel is it on?
You will have to tune in to BT Sport 2 to watch the official broadcast which begins at 7.30pm. Will Jake Humphrey remain in the hot seat for the Europa League or will they parachute in Gary Lineker for the last English team standing? Likely pundits include the Manchester United-friendly Michael Owen, Paul Scholes Rio Ferdinand and Owen Hargreaves.
BBC Radio 5 Live has audio commentary and you should join us here, on this very page, to read our minute-by-minute live blog helmed by the dynamite duo of JJ Bull and his robot who produces lovely, informative graphics and never succumbs to saying: "Boogie, Boogie."
What is the team news?
Giuseppe Rossi, the Italy and former Manchester United striker, is out until at least December after rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last month and the left-back Carles Planas is unavailable after hurting his knee last week, but not so severely. The goalkeeper Rubén Blanco, who has played in four Europa League matches this season, hurt his right thigh at the beginning of March but resumed training on Monday.
Celta, who are 11th in La Liga, are likely to stick with the 4-3-3 system that has served them so well, with Pione Sisto, Iago Aspas and John Guidetti up front. Aspas is in tremendous form after being bombed out at Anfield early and not given the 18 months it sometimes takes for Spanish players to settle in England while Guidetti will be familiar to Man City fans and Sisto to United fans - he scored home and away against them for Midtjylland last season, the second overshadowed by Marcus Rashford's dream debut.
You would think Jose Mourinho might have mentioned that Manchester United are experiencing a few injury problems, wouldn't you? Instead it falls to us to break the news this stoical, reasonable man is too forbearing to reveal. Sadly United will be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo and Chris Smalling, all suffering from knee injuries of varying seriousness and Luke Shaw who has hurt his foot. Happily, though, Eric Bailly has been passed fit enough to join the party and both he and the other main doubt, Paul Pogba, are expected to play. In another boost Philip 'Phil' Jones trained on Tuesday and has been included in the 23-man squad.
Manchester United squad De Gea, Romero, Pereira; Bailly, Blind, Darmian, Jones, Smalling, Tuanzebe, Valencia, Young; Carrick, Fellaini, Herrera, Lingard, Mata, McTominay, Mkhitaryan, Pogba, Willock; Martial, Rashford, Rooney.
What are they saying?
Celta Vigo manager, the notoriously homophobic Eduardo Berizzo, sounded the trumpets for his players to perform at the sold out Balaídos:
"We all have to go together, hand in hand, imagining about a dream result," he said. "To be able to accomplish the dream should stimulate everyone to try to overcome a great team by giving a great effort. I really hope we experience a special night."
Meanwhile Jose Mourinho, who won the competition with Porto in 2003, covets this trophy as much for itself as the Champions League place it offers.
"We know we play our lives on Thursday in Vigo," he said, "because we have to consider that the most important match of the season as we have reached a European semi-final."
"Fellaini and Pogba will be back for that game, so we have more options and we try with everything we have and we go again.
What are the odds?
Celta Vigo win - 2/1
Manchester United win - 6/4
Draw - 11/5
What is our prediction?
A draw in Vigo with Manchester United leading until the last 10 minutes before conceding.