Manchester United took care of business in a big way in its first leg with Real Sociedad, scoring four goals in Turin against Basque County “hosts” who were very much in form.
La Real entered the day as La Liga’s third-best attack (xG) and a defense that has rivaled Atletico Madrid and Sevilla for the best mark in Spain.
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Four goals later, United can say it looks more like the side that scored 12 goals between a win over Southampton and a draw with Everton than one who nipped West Ham 1-0 in the FA Cup and looked idea-free in a 1-1 draw with West Brom.
“We just wanted to be back to ourselves again,” said United boss OIe Gunnar Solskjaer. “The last few weeks, I don’t know how you say it in English but it’s been staccato, stop-start and we’ve not really performed. It was about finding ourselves, being positive, having courage and running until you have to come off.”
Solskjaer says United has not gotten over the end of last season’s Europa League run.
The Red Devils fell at the semifinal stage as defensive lapses and a lack of finished allowed Julen Lopetegui’s eventual champions Sevilla to send United home without a chance to lift a trophy.
“We didn’t get anything back from last season’s Europa League run, that’s for sure,” he said. “We can talk about being in the semi-final and, in the end, we got nothing out of that so maybe sometimes you could look at it not being worth it. But I think the experience from last season has helped this team, these boys, and we have got to learn from experiences on the job. That’s the only way of learning from your mistakes to correct them. I’ve got to say the semi-final defeat last season is still in the back of our heads. Of course, it hurts. We played a very good Sevilla team and felt we should have gone all the way.”
The win is potentially big in another way besides progress toward silverware.
United gets Newcastle next in the Premier League and simply needs to avoid a four-goal loss against La Real at Old Trafford in a week before a brutal run of fixtures.
The relative rest on Feb. 18 could be a difference-maker as United prepares for Chelsea away, Man City away, and West Ham at home in the league before an FA Cup quarterfinal match at Leicester City.
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That’s four brutal matches in 21 days. That doesn’t read as tough as it would in years without the schedule congestion caused by Project Restart and the late starting 2020-21 season, but it sure is going to be a test of United’s top-end mettle. Having to go all-out in the second leg would’ve asked a lot.
Manchester United was boosted to Europa League favorite (+350) in the past 24 hours on Pointsbet, passing Tottenham (+500). Arsenal is third (+900) and AC Milan (+1000) just behind despite first leg setbacks.
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