With a wave of Jan Eteki’s hand, Manchester United were virtually through. For much of a largely uneventful night it appeared that a single, gorgeous touch from Marcus Rashford would secure a small yet significant lead for Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side to take into the second leg. Then a late gift given turned it into a virtually unassailable one, the substitute catching Bruno Fernandes in the face to give him the penalty from which he put them on the verge of the Europa League semi-final.
With half an hour gone Rashford had watched the ball travel 60 yards through the air to where he was running. He caught it on his toe, tamed it, and turned it into what seemed set to be the only goal. Instead, as added time approached Eteki, who had only been on the pitch four minutes, made the error that in effect ended this tie.
At 1-0, and without Luke Shaw, Scott McTominay and Harry Maguire, all of whom picked up suspensions here, the advantage would have been United’s but Granada might have harboured some hope, much as they had been determined to avoid conceding an away goal; at 2-0, they knew it was over, Roberto Soldado talking like a man aware that a historic journey is reaching its final destination. “I’m proud of my teammates and we competed to the end,” he said. “When we were kids, we wanted to play United and next week we’re going to Old Trafford. We’re going to enjoy it, but we have to be realistic.”
This was already a historic occasion for Granada, but not an epic match. From United’s point of view, it was enough and they will reflect that ultimately their superiority probably showed, even if 2-0 flattered them. For Granada, it hurt of course but the success was getting this far, and that was reflected pre-game.
The fans gave the team a motorbike cavalcade on the ground, thousands of them beeping and revving and roaring their way to Los Cármenes, where supporters waited with smoke and scarves. No, there wasn’t much social distancing. But, no, there hasn’t ever been a night like this, either. In the week the club turned 90, the first season they had ever played in Europe, they could barely believe that Manchester United were actually coming to play at their place.
There was awe, but there had to be ambition too, and it took Granada only 20 seconds for Carlos Neva to whip the first ball into United’s area. But this is a team that have defied the odds through resistance and organisation, a toughness and pragmatism to them, and soon the game settled into a pattern which saw United take 65% of first-half possession. Not that very much was happening, apart from a streaker running on.
Until, that was, Granada had their first opportunity and United got the first goal. Soldado hit the side-netting from close range and from the goal-kick the Premier League side scored, an almost uninterested simplicity about it all. David de Gea rolled it to Victor Lindelöf who walked forward five metres, then 10, then 15, apparently going nowhere in particular and no one going to him. Suddenly, he saw something and struck a superb long ball over the top that dropped perfectly for Rashford. The first touch was superb and the finish followed.
That they had planed for precisely that pass made it harder to take but Granada reacted, Ángel Montoro’s clipped deliveries invariably the most incisive of their passes, while the intensity rose too, an edge momentarily entering the game. Yangel Herrera hit a post, Soldado struck wide and Robert Kenedy hit a clean volley that De Gea gathered. His willingness to shoot would be a feature but while he invariably caught the ball well, De Gea dealt with it all.
Maguire ran through and struck wide before a moment later Yangel flicked the ball over his head, leaving him trailing well behind as he dashed towards the area where he failed to find Soldado. The former Spurs striker then sliced wide, a signal of a slight shift: there were still few clear opportunities but Granada had taken a step forward with Yangel, dynamic and increasingly daring too, leading the way. He shot over then almost slipped in Neva.
Time slipped away and Granada had to go for this, but they tended to find McTominay standing before them and they continued to exercise caution: on the touchline, Diego Martínez was calling for them to use their heads, aware that a second would end it. In the 90th minute, out of nowhere, it arrived. A raised hand and referee Artur Dias was pointing the spot and, in all probability, the end of the road.