Manchester United had goalkeeper David de Gea to thank as they earned a goalless draw away to Sevilla on Wednesday night in their Champions League round of 16 first-leg clash.
Eyebrows were raised when the visitors’ starting XI was announced, as manager Jose Mourinho left fit-again Paul Pogba on the bench, naming a midfield trio of Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera and 21-year-old Scott McTominay. United made a slow start to proceedings at the bouncing Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium and were unable to get their foot on the ball and dictate play, instead being forced to drop deep and defend early Sevilla pressure. Whilst the hosts were unable to create any clear-cut opportunities in the opening stages, they were not afraid to try their luck from distance, with Luis Muriel’s early long-range drive forcing de Gea into a low stop.
With just over a quarter of an hour played in Spain, Herrera’s night came to a premature end through injury, with Mourinho bringing on an under-scrutiny Pogba in the Spaniard’s place. United’s first real chance of the tie came midway through the first-half, when Alexis Sanchez played a delightful ball into the path of Romelu Lukaku, only for the Belgian to volley his effort well over the bar when he ought to have tested goalkeeper Sergio Rico. A few minutes before the half-time interval, the Reds registered their first shot on target as McTominay, who put in a fantastic performance in midfield, tested Rico with a left-footed drive from outside the box which the goalkeeper opted to punch away.
As the first 45 minutes drew to a close, Sevilla burst into life, only to be denied a well-deserved lead by the sublime reflexes of de Gea. First, it was former Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City midfielder Steven N’Zonzi who came close, as he saw his header from inside the box tipped over the bar by the Spaniard and away for a corner. However, it was seconds before the half-time whistle when de Gea highlighted why he is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world. A ball into the box found the head of Muriel, whose effort from practically point-blank range should have nestled into the net, only for de Gea to pull off a stunning reflex save and tip the ball over the bar.
Despite being lucky to enter the half-time break with the scores still goalless, United failed to up the tempo in the second period and their attacking play continued to lack the urgency or speed required to break down this Sevilla rearguard.
The final 20 minutes of this feisty encounter in Spain saw the game open up a little, with United afforded more space on the counter-attack, although it was the hosts who continued to dominate play. On the left wing, Joaquin Correa was a constant menace for the La Liga outfit and gave Antonio Valencia a torrid time at right-back, as Vincenzo Montella’s side upped their search for a winning goal.
Mourinho threw on Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial in an attempt to hit Sevilla on the break and find a precious away goal. When the Reds did have the ball in the back of the net, the effort was quickly disallowed. Lukaku did well to fire the ball past Rico in goal, however, the Belgian saw his effort ruled for a handball in the build-up to the strike. In the end, neither side could find the back of the net and Mourinho is likely to view the goalless scoreline as a positive away result ahead of the second leg at Old Trafford in three weeks’ time.
Whilst the performance was somewhat disappointing from an attacking perspective, Reds fans can take a number of positives from the tricky trip to Spain. Besides yet another fantastic performance from de Gea and yet another clean sheet, McTominay did not look out of place in the middle of the park and put in an impressive display in both the defensive and attacking third. The 21-year-old is fast becoming an important member of Mourinho’s first-team and the academy graduate is certainly deserving of a starting berth for Sunday’s crunch Premier League clash with Chelsea at Old Trafford.