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Sevilla’s Europa League magic leaves Erik ten Hag with questions to answer

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The curse of La Liga may sink Manchester United again. Erik ten Hag seemed to be curing many of their bad habits and a club who had gone out of Europe to Spanish opposition in five consecutive seasons appeared on course for a third successive triumph against its representatives. Barcelona were eliminated in the last 32, Real Betis in the last 16 and Sevilla looked shambolic as they went two goals down in the first quarter at Old Trafford.

But there is something about Sevilla in the Europa League. Languishing in the bottom half of their domestic league, only five points off the drop zone, on their third manager of the season, the six-time winners mounted the sort of comeback United thought they had trademarked. They did so with the aid of fortune, with injury reducing United to 10 men and two deflections bringing two own goals. But a 2-2 draw represented riches to take back home and Ten Hag’s dream of a cup treble felt under threat after a disastrous few minutes.

First Jesus Navas crossed and Tyrell Malacia turned it past David de Gea and in at his near post. Then United, who had lost the injured Raphael Varane at half-time, were deprived of their other centre-back: Lisandro Martinez was hurt, carried off the pitch by his Argentina teammates Gonzalo Montiel and Marcos Acuna. With all five substitutions made, he could not be replaced.

It left Harry Maguire the only specialist central defender on the pitch for United and when Youssef En-Nesyri headed a cross, the captain only managed to head it past De Gea. En-Nesyri has orchestrated an upset or two – his goal for Morocco eliminated Portugal from the World Cup – and while this was debited to Maguire, he was a catalyst again. Sevilla got better as they turned to their bench more. They sensed weakness and, from the jaws of defeat, they snatched a draw.

The damage to United extended beyond the scoreline and the injury bulletin. Already without Marcus Rashford for the second leg, they have lost their second highest scorer. A first-half booking means Bruno Fernandes is suspended.

The Portuguese may be another cause of regret for United. They seemed to be cruising when, with half an hour remaining and United looking likelier to score a third goal than concede, Ten Hag made a triple substitution. There were grounds to remove Anthony Martial, who was making his first start in almost three months, but Fernandes and Jadon Sancho went off with them, and Sevilla fared better without them on the pitch.

If Ten Hag takes a depleted team to Sevilla next week, at least a stand-in had showed how understudies can seize an opportunity. If United signed Marcel Sabitzer to deputise for Christian Eriksen, he turned out to be the surprise replacement of sorts for Rashford. As United began a few games without their injured top scorer, they found a new and perhaps unexpected source of goals. Borrowed from Bayern Munich, where he had scored two goals in 54 games, Sabitzer supplied two in a seven-minute period for United.

Ten Hag was a big spender in the summer but, with a limited budget, he had to be resourceful in January. That a player of Sabitzer’s ability was available on loan when Eriksen was injured at the end of the winter window meant United could get high-class cover at short notice.

Marcel Sabitzer proved his worth in the absence of Marcus Rashford

(Action Images via Reuters)

He capped a start brimming with positivity. United thought they had scored after 14 seconds, when Sancho was narrowly offside, and did strike after 14 minutes. Sabitzer latched on to Fernandes’s pass, span and shot, though a hefty deflection off Marcao helped defeat Bono; Ten Hag’s gambit of fielding the Austrian as the No 10 and the Portuguese in a deeper role was justified. Sabitzer’s second goal, seven minutes later, required no such assistance. United counterattacked from a Sevilla corner, Martial provided the defence-splitting pass, Sabitzer the well-timed run and fine low finish.

The impish, electric Antony almost added a third, striking the bar after cutting in onto his favoured left foot. But he went off, too, removed a couple of minutes before Malacia scored the first own goal. When Maguire delivered the second, he was transported back to last season, a picture of luckless haplessness. And United, too, seemed taken back to their past, to the time when Spanish sides were their nemeses. They have already won in Seville once this spring, against Betis. Now they need another victory there, or the road to Budapest will end in Spain.

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