Manchester United owe Champions League return to one man

Last May, Casemiro won the Champions League. This May, he qualified for it. It sounds the lesser achievement. A player who played in four Champions League final victories is now mathematically assured of a top-four finish. As Manchester United returned to the top table of European football, it owed much to Casemiro.

Over the season, he has been a catalytic force. On the night when they condemned Chelsea to defeat and Liverpool to the Europa League, he was again. United had been short of goals of late but Casemiro started a rout of the 2021 Champions League winners. Erik ten Hag bought a defensive midfielder, but Casemiro has contributed much in attack. He scored the opening goal and helped set up the second with a sand wedge of a pass. Anthony Martial scored it, Bruno Fernandes added a third from the penalty spot before the substitute Marcus Rashford became the first player to score 30 goals in a season for United since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. But the name that echoed most around Old Trafford, unsurprisingly, was Casemiro’s.

He signed in August after the embarrassment of the 4-0 demolition at Brentford; undeterred, Casemiro has helped lead a revival. United’s season, which began disastrously, will end with Ten Hag in credit. With a trophy in the cabinet and a top-four finish, there is a sense his mission has been accomplished, even if the mood will partly be affected by whether United end Manchester City’s treble hopes in the FA Cup final.

There was a pragmatic element to buying Casemiro, paying £63m for a player in his thirties. There was a need for a short-term return on their investment, but United have got it. As Ten Hag had noted on Wednesday, and in relation to Chelsea, money is not enough without strategy. Some £600m later, the Londoners played some enterprising football at Old Trafford but departed with an eighth defeat in 10 matches under Frank Lampard. United instead showed the flair to get four goals and, with Chelsea’s defence disintegrating, could have had twice as many. A third successive win took their tally to 40 victories this season and 29 games unbeaten at Old Trafford.

Casemiro scored Man United’s first goal of the evening (Reuters)
Casemiro scored Man United’s first goal of the evening (Reuters)

Casemiro is the serial winner who has assumed a symbolic importance. Ten Hag revamped and upgraded United’s midfield last summer and his signings combined effectively. Casemiro’s aerial ability at set-pieces has proved a welcome benefit and he headed in Christian Eriksen’s free kick. Until the Dane was injured in January, he ranked second only to Kevin De Bruyne for assists in the Premier League, and the quality of his delivery has added another dimension.

Casemiro had opened his United account against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Bought to give ballast to the midfield, he has proved more prolific than most expected; a seventh goal of the season equalled the best haul of his career. It is a moot point if this was his most important goal for United – he did score in the Carabao Cup final – but the significance of Champions League football means it could be.

Jadon Sancho and Martial were particular culprits as United’s attackers took poor decisions and bad touches until, in a moment of redemption, the winger sprang the offside trap to meet Casemiro’s pass and centre for the striker to have a tap-in.

Thereafter, Fernandes hit the post after being found by Sancho. Eriksen ought to have added a third from about three yards but was denied by that rarity, a wondrous save by Kepa Arrizabalaga. Fernandes did when tripped by Wesley Fofana, scoring the spot kick himself. Fofana’s traumatic afternoon continued as he gifted the ball to Fernandes. He found Rashford, who ended up rolling the ball in to become the first United player to reach 30 since Robin van Persie.

Marcus Rashford emerged from the bench to help wrap up victory (Reuters)
Marcus Rashford emerged from the bench to help wrap up victory (Reuters)

Rashford had come on when Antony was stretchered off, his chances of appearing in the FA Cup final presumably over, head in hands after an innocuous challenge by Trevoh Chalobah. Luke Shaw came off at half-time with a minor back injury that is less likely to rule him out.

For Chelsea, the relief may be that there is only one more game to go in a harrowing season.

Frank Lampard named Chelsea’s youngest-ever team in the Premier League. The youngest of them acquitted himself well: for the second time in five days in Manchester, Lewis Hall was their best player. He twice could have had an assist, inviting crosses bringing an awful miss from Mykhailo Mudryk and a header wide by Kai Havertz, and had a shot parried by David de Gea. Carney Chukwuemeka showed glimpses of talent, too, and the substitute Joao Felix drilled in a consolation goal.

But, when Alejandro Garnacho hit the bar, they came perilously close to conceding a fifth. It is little over a year since they faced Casemiro, then with Real Madrid in a Champions League quarter-final. He will be in the competition again next year. Chelsea certainly won’t be.