Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would have preferred this Europa League tie to have been played over just the one leg, but at least the second should be only a formality. Manchester United will progress to the last-16 after this impressive 4-0 victory against Real Sociedad on neutral territory, barring a total collapse at Old Trafford next week.
Bruno Fernandes’s brace and strikes from Marcus Rashford and Daniel James converted a comfortable performance from United into a commanding position, with the winning margin even allowing Solskjaer to hand a senior debut to his new, 18-year-old, £37m signing – the highly-rated Amad Diallo.
Hosts at Turin’s Allianz Stadium in name only, la Real must now overturn four away goals despite not playing a minute of this tie on their home ground. There is an inherent unfairness in that, but that does not nearly account for the gulf in quality between Imanol Alguacil’s side and their opponents.
Sociedad were always second best, and despite the best efforts of goalkeeper Alex Remiro, United punished their high defensive line over and over again. Fernandes had his usual influence on proceedings, Rashford recovered from two early misses, but there was no single individual which stood out from a complete team performance. If there is a regret, it is that they did not score six or seven.
Solskjaer should be able to rest players for next Thursday’s return. A strong line-up made this first leg no contest, save for the frenetic opening minutes. Adnan Januzaj almost took an early vengeance for his failed Old Trafford career, capitalising on Eric Bailly’s slip, shaping for the top left-hand corner of his former club’s goal and missing by only a few inches.
His team-mate Alexander Isak forced Dean Henderson into an awkward save at his near post shortly after on another fast Sociedad break. The best early opportunities fell to Rashford, though, and his finishing was that of a player with just two goals in his last 13 appearances at the start of the night.
Twice Rashford found himself one-on-one with Remiro inside the box with a clear sight of goal, twice placed his finish straight into Remiro’s legs. Fernandes’ follow-up on the second was cleared off the line by Robin Le Normand.
They were the latest misses in an unwelcome streak of wasteful finishing from Rashford but if they demonstrated that he still has work to do to become an indisputably elite forward, his pass for the breakthrough showed how much progress he has already made.
A beautiful, searching ball over the top discombobulated la Real’s defence, sending Remiro, Le Normand and Igor Zubeldia crashing into one another. All Fernandes had to do was step back, wait for the loose ball to bounce his way and roll a finish into the unguarded net.
At 1-0, Sociedad still posed a threat. Towards the end of the first half, only Mason Greenwood’s diligence in tracking back prevented Nacho Monreal from a simple tap-in that may have made the tie interesting.
Yet by the midpoint of the second, the contest was all but over. Fernandes’s second was a sublime finish, dug out from the turf despite the ball falling slightly behind him, after Daniel James had diverted another line-breaking Rashford pass into his path. The assistant referee initially ruled the goal out for offside but VAR vindicated Fernandes, who made sure the official was aware of his error.
And having finally played his way into the contest, Rashford would not pass up a third clear-cut chance. Fred’s majestically weighted through ball deserved a composed, assured finish. Rashford found it, guiding the ball inside Remiro’s near post.
James deserved a goal too for his efforts on a rare start, and would not be denied despite seeing one ruled out for a marginal offside. Cutting inside from the right, the much-maligned winger found enough space between Remiro and the upright to sneak the ball over the line, just out of Diallo’s reach, and extend an already healthy advantage.