Manchester United are the nation’s last men standing in Europe but no-one is deluded. It’s ten years since the club recorded that monumental 7-1 win against Roma in the Champions League here which Sir Alex Ferguson described as “the greatest night” he’d experienced in the place and left Corriere della Sera reflecting that “no technical explanation holds.” That all seems a distant universe now.
A left-footed strike from Marcus Rashford from a Marouane Fellaini knock-down in the game’s 107th minute proved the difference, yet Jose Mourinho’s quest for Champions League football through the Europa League door was a terribly tense one. It has been the week when the football of Atletico Madrid has graced these shores. You shudder to think what damage they may have wreaked, had United been on the stage they aspire.
They discover on Friday whether they will face Ajax, Celta Vigo or Lyon in the semi-final, and there is some encouragement to be taken from the matchwinner’s performance. It was not a perfect display from Marcus Rashford but the quality of the finish – a drag-back and low, fractionally deflected shot – capped a night on which he showed more attacking ambition than any other player in red.
There may be more chances, given that Zlatan Ibrahimovic looked to have damaged ligaments after hyper-extending his leg after landing from an aerial challenge in the last knockings of normal time. Mourinho did not deny on Thursday night that the Swede’s season may be over.
The first half was United’s season in microcosm – flashing moments of great promise, none less than Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s 10th minute opener – with no developing sense that their challengers would be swept aside. The Armenian’s finish was clinical enough - the end product of a sweeping move down the Dutch left set in train by Paul Pogba’s 30-yard ball of vision and perfect weight – but United anything but.
It was certainly a night to marvel at the silky touch and spatial awareness of Mkhitaryan, whose utter lack of emotion after the goal may have been his signal that he had heard Jose Mourinho’s latest criticism of him this week and was responding.
Yet United lacked the central midfield bite of Ander Herrera, who has become the Portuguese’s attack dog and was confined to the bench, while the display of Pogba was supremely frustrating. His own erratic passing was topped off by a wild strike which sailed 20 yards over.
It didn’t help United’s attempts to see off the Belgians that Marcos Rojo was carried off after 23 minutes with an ankle injury after his mistimed attempts to halt Frank Acheampong’s progress left him in agony on the turf. But Anderlecht looked worth an equaliser and were presented with one by a poor piece of defending just beyond the half hour.
Tielemans’ enterprising shot from distance was deflected off Antonio Valencia onto the United bar and, with no one clearing it, Rojo’s replacement Daley Blind was left to mop up as Lukasz Teodorczky and Sofiane Hanni pounced. He was busy fretting around Teodorczky as the ball squirmed out for Hanni to strike the ball home.
United certainly had their moments after the break but the chances were spurned with wild abandon. Jesse Lingard could not connect on Luke Shaw’s dangerous ball across the six yard when the chance was there. Rashford rounded goalkeeper Martinez Ruben on the breakaway but took the ball out too far from goal to cut it in. An unchallenged Zlatan Ibrahimovic side footed at the stopper from eight yards out when a chance landed at his feet and would crash wide again before 90 minutes were up. Pogba skied over the bar from two yards.
It said everything for the limited scope of United’s creative ambition in a fairly pitiful second half that Marouane Fellaini arrived for Lingard on the hour and Herrera, whose presence was being demanded from the stands, remained out of the picture. It was craft that United lacked. The piece of game-changing vision was so lacking that the captain, Wayne Rooney, staring intently in substitutes vest and distributing water bottles during a break in play, seemed the necessary option. Mkhitaryan, the one touch player on the field, seemed to vanish.
There seemed to be an omen in the last competitive challenge of normal time, which sent Ibrahimovic into an aerial challenge from which he landed desperately, his right leg bent back as he reached ground. Anthony Martial arrived for extra time.
By then United were in overwhelming control, though Fellaini was correctly judged to have climbed on defender Uris Spajic to supply the knock-down which Pogba tapped into the net. Momentarily, Rashford seemed to have lost his chance to bury the knock-down chance Fellaini offered him. But he squeezed the chance in under the challenge of Serigne Mbodjii.
Even then, Frank Acheampong had a headed chance before the end, when one goal was enough for the Belgians. So United march on. Something more clinical will be needed to win this tournament and succeed in the Champions League beyond.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Romero; Valencia, Bailly, Rojo, Shaw; Carrick, Pogba; Lingard, Mkhitaryan, Rashford; Ibrahimovic. Substitutes: De Gea, Rooney, Martial, Blind, Young, Herrera, Fellaini
Anderlecht (4-2-3-1): Ruben; Appiah, Mbodji, Spajic, Obradovic; Dendoncker, Tielemans; Chipciu, Hanni, Acheampong; Teodorczyk,. Substitutes: Boeckx, Deschacht, Bruno, Nuytinck, Capel, Kiese Thelin, Stanciu
Referee: A Undiano Mallenco (Spain)