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AC Milan is in the box seat to progress from their Europa League Round of 16 tie with Manchester United after a 92nd-minute equaliser gave them a priceless away goal to take home to Italy.
The match-up had all the makings of a big European night at Old Trafford, reminiscent of Champions League battles of years past, except it was Thursday night at an empty stadium, with big names lacking on both team sheets.
Milan was without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, injury ruling him out of an Old Trafford return, while the hosts were missing Marcus Rashford, Edinson Cavani and Paul Pogba, while Luke Shaw was only fit enough to make the bench.
AC Milan Started Brightly
Despite not having their talisman on the pitch, Milan started brightly, hitting the back of the net in the fifth minute with a goal that was chalked off for offside.
Seven minutes later Franck Kessie rifled a superb shot past Dean Henderson, but the visitors were to be denied once again, as VAR adjudged Kessie used his hand to control the ball.
With Milan in the ascendancy it could have been a horrible evening for Manchester United, but the hosts clawed their way back into the match, and should have gone ahead but for an inexplicable miss from captain Harry Maguire, who failed to tap the ball in from on the goal line, hitting the post instead.
First Goal For Amad Diallo
Having gone into the break at 0-0 United could have thought themselves lucky to still be in the tie, and made the most of it in the 50th minute when Amad Diallo, on as a half-time substitute for Anthony Martial, got on the end of a beautifully floated ball from Bruno Fernandes to back-header the ball over Gianluigi Donnarumma and into the back of the net for his first goal in United’s colours.
The hosts should have gone on to score more, but in the 70th minute Daniel James conspired to miss an open goal, leaving the game on a knife-edge going into the closing stages.
Late Equaliser For Milan
With time winding down, Milan had one more chance from a corner deep into stoppage time.
As the ball swung in, Simon Kjaer got a head to it, and Dean Henderson flapped at what should have been a routine save to give the visitors the upper hand going into the second leg.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Disappointed With Performance
After playing brilliantly to dismantle Manchester City 2-0 away from home on the weekend, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was pleased with the individual performance of Amad Diallo, but disappointed with the teams performance as a whole.
“In possession today, we were too slow. Even though we had the same amount of possession as them, we never used the ball well enough and never played it quick enough. We started really slow and are disappointed in that.”
“He's (Amad) creative and he plays with freedom. Great pass from Bruno [Fernandes] by the way, that’s what makes the goal. Amad, he has been on the pitch before, but a good goal. He has loads to learn and he’ll be better having had that [time].”
“I’m sure the players, the ones who get chances, they take them. Amad took his chance today when he came on. We hope Anthony is not too bad, we hope Marcus [Rashford] may hopefully [be back]. Definitely for the away tie, we don’t know about the weekend but let’s see. We’ll get players back hopefully, they’ll get players back, so it’ll be a good game with two good teams. Hopefully, Marcus is ready for next weekend on Thursday, I’m not sure about the weekend. [Edinson] Cavani, maybe as well for the Milan game away. We should be putting a stronger team on paper anyway.”
As a ruthless finisher in his playing days, Solskjaer felt Maguire should have made more of his effort, which could have changed the complexion of the tie.
“It’s a decent-sized chance that to be fair! I think the keeper gets his hand to it and changes the direction of it. It’s a reaction and unfortunately it hits the inside of the post and goes out. That’s a big moment. Dan [James] had a big moment in the second half, he could have slid instead of trying to score. We’re here, we know where we are and we need to go there and score. We’ve done that many a time in Europe.
While many felt Henderson should have kept out the equaliser, Solskjaer felt the defending should have been better at the death.
“Well, it’s a header from six yards. He can save it from there; I’ve seen him save from there. But it’s the structure we lose, we dropped a yard or two too deep and we get blocked. Kjaer makes a good run, he's strong and his marker is blocked off and he gets the header on it. We should have attacked the ball with the men we had there. It's disappointing but that can happen. I've been part of a team that scored in injury-time in Europe myself from a set-play!“
While confidence was high after the derby win, the team came crashing back down to earth tonight, but the manager feels the teams away record will hold them in good stead when the team travel to the San Siro next week.
“It’s sometimes hard on the back of the game [at City] we had, but that’s the learning we have to get into ourselves and you have to perform every single week against good teams, because these are definitely a good team.”
“Of course our away form has been really good and we’ve created chances enough. We’ve scored goals away from home and we’ve got the character, personality to bounce back. We've been exciting and efficient away from home, especially in the last round against Real Sociedad. That's a template on how we want to play in games. First of all though, West Ham then Milan,” concluded Solskjaer.
United have made a habit of making things difficult for themselves over the years, even with Sir Alex Ferguson in charge. That tradition has been continued under Solskjaer, who will hope to find some of the magic that pushed United through their European challenges back in 1999.