Paul Pogba came off the bench to fire Manchester United into the Europa League quarter-finals, beating AC Milan 1-0 at the San Siro to complete a 2-1 aggregate win on Thursday night.
The Frenchman, who had missed the previous 10 games with a thigh injury, made an instant impact after replacing Marcus Rashford at the break to score the crucial away goal as United joined Arsenal in Friday’s draw for the last eight.
Like Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic came off the bench in the second half to face his former club but the Swede was denied with a header from close range by Dean Henderson during an open second period.
United used all their experience to wind down the clock and might have doubled their lead on the night when Pogba’s header from Dan James went narrowly over, but one goal would prove enough.
AC Milan: G. Donnarumma (6), Kalulu (5), Kjaer (6), Tomori (6), Hernandez (6), Kessie (6), Meite (5), Saelemaekers (6), Calhanoglu (7), Krunic (5), Castillejo (6).
Subs: Dalot (6), Ibrahimovic (6), Brahim Diaz (6).
Man Utd: Henderson (7), Lindelof (8), Maguire (7), Wan-Bissaka (7), Shaw (7), McTominay (7), Fred (8), James (6), Fernandes (6), Rashford (5), Greenwood (6).
Subs: Pogba (8).
Man of the match: Fred.
Pogba made the difference, while Henderson produced a big save to thwart Ibrahimovic but it was the way Fred wrestled control of the midfield that ensured United turned a lacklustre first-half display into a highly polished victory.
The Brazilian helped his side come to life, bossing Kessie and Soualiho Meite in a stadium where they’ve often had a bit of heartache in the past.
In eight trips to the San Siro, this is only their second win – and Solskjaer showed his delight with Fred’s performance at the final whistle in what could prove a big moment in United’s season.
Pogba inspires famous San Siro night
When failing to win the first leg at home, United had been eliminated from six of their previous eight ties in European competition, but Pogba ensured that record wasn’t extended during a controlled and disciplined second-half display.
This competition provided United’s last silverware in 2016/17, when Jose Mourinho added to that season’s EFL Cup triumph after Louis Van Gaal had masterminded FA Cup success the previous campaign.
They are United’s only major trophies since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 and, while determined to win his first silverware in charge, Solskjaer claimed prior to Thursday’s second leg there was more to progress than cup success.
There was little intensity from his side during a lacklustre opening 45 minutes, however, as Milan carved open the best of the first-half chances. Alexis Saelemaekers shot from distance to draw a simple save from Henderson, while Rade Krunic volleyed wide Saelemaekers’ cross on the stroke of half-time.
Solskjaer’s men had just one shot on target before the interval, a speculative effort from Fred that was easily gathered by Gianluigi Donnarumma while James went down inside the box under a fair challenge from Fikayo Tomori.
Quality with the final ball was lacking for United, and Solskjaer acted swiftly at the restart with Pogba replacing Rashford, who was struggling with an ankle injury. The move paid instant dividends.
James saw a shot blocked to start a penalty-box melee in which United kept their cool, with Fred’s pressure on Franck Kessie leading the ball to be pushed onto Pogba. Five yards out but at an acute angle, he shaped to cross only to shimmy and strike past Gianluigi Donnarumma at the near post.
It was clear Milan boss Stefano Pioli needed to change something and he summoned Ibrahimovic from the bench in the 65th minute. It posed a new problem for the United defence, who were thankful to a crucial block from Victor Lindelof to deny Kessie at the near post.
Hakan Calhanoglu had provided the cross, and the Turkey midfielder continued to provide Milan with a creative spark as his next delivery was met by Ibrahimovic at the far post, rising above Luke Shaw, and forcing a good one-handed save from Henderson.
Milan huffed and puffed in the closing stages, but Henderson was again alert when Theo Hernandez’s cross deflected goalwards off Scott McTominay as United secured an impressive away win, their third in succession against Italian opposition in European competition.
Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer told BT Sport: “I’m very happy of course. We’ve come through a very difficult tie against a fantastic club, a very good team and we’ve overcome some difficulties.
“You give yourself a chance to win a game of football when you keep a clean sheet. Dean Henderson made a fantastic save towards the end and I’m very pleased with everyone’s defending. We know the back six, with the likes of Scott McTominay and Fred, always give everything.
“There are many good teams left but you’ve got to be spot on. It’s a cup competition and anything can happen. But we are through and we feel confident.”
On goalscorer Paul Pogba’s performance: “We’ve missed Paul. He’s been out for almost two months and any team would miss a player like Paul Pogba. He was just getting into his best form. He is very important for us and he’s going to give us a big boost. He makes a very, very big difference to us.”
On facing Leicester in the FA Cup this weekend: “We are looking forward to Sunday, it’s another quarter-final, so will just dust ourselves down and go again.”
Shaw: We were awful first half
Manchester United defender Luke Shaw told BT Sport: “Obviously, we’re very happy we’re through. I’ll be honest, and the lads and staff would agree, we weren’t good at all especially first half we were awful.
“The first 10-15 minutes, we started well, kept control of the ball but it was like a switch – we turned off, kept giving away balls, bringing pressure on ourselves and we were lucky.
“Second half it always helps to have a world class player like Paul (Pogba) to make a difference and he did that. But we know we need to be better than tonight.
“It’s a very good win and the positive is that we are through, we have players coming back and the squad looks better.”
Pogba makes difference – Opta stats
- Manchester United have progressed from each of their last two knockout ties with Milan in European competition, having been eliminated in each of the four ties beforehand (European Cup in 1957-58 and 1968-69, Champions League in 2004-05 and 2006-07).
- Manchester United have only lost one of their last 20 knockout stage matches in the UEFA Europa League (W12 D7), a 1-2 defeat to Sevilla in 2019-20 semi-final.
- Milan have lost five of their last six home games against English teams in European competition (W1), after going unbeaten in each of their first 13 such matches (W8 D5).
- Dean Henderson has kept 11 clean sheets in just 18 appearances for Man Utd in all competitions this season, one more than David de Gea has registered in 29 games (10).
- Man Utd’s Paul Pogba has scored in each of his last two away games versus Milan (also for Juve in April 2016) – while this was just his second ever goal as a substitute for the Red Devils in what was his 31st such appearance (also scored v Brighton in Sept 2020).
- Man Utd’s Harry Maguire has played more minutes than any other Premier League player in all competitions this season (3855 mins), with no Utd player making more clearances (5) or interceptions (5) versus Milan tonight.
The Europa League quarter-final and semi-final draw will take place from 12pm UK time on Friday, March 19. You will be able to follow both draws with Sky Sports.
Manchester United travel to face Leicester in the FA Cup quarter-finals at 5pm on Sunday. Fiorentina host AC Milan at the same time.