Rashford strike eases Manchester United past Real Betis into last eight | Europa League

Two minutes before eight o’clock local time, the Benito Villamarín rose to its feet and began to applaud, 55,000 Real Betis fans then breaking into song. There was recognition there, and resignation too. Marcus Rashford had just sent an absurd shot spearing past Rui Silva to make him the Europa League’s top scorer and, they knew, take Manchester United through to the next round. They had always suspected as much and now it was confirmed. United were 1-0 up on the night, 5-1 on aggregate and it was done. And so they stood to applaud.

Ultimately, United would be able to ease into the next round, where they will surely be favourites. They did so without the one real risk they had faced, Casemiro and Bruno Fernandes, impressive here avoiding suspensions. In the end, their superiority told. The surprise was perhaps that there was only one goal: once United had found a way through, Harry Maguire would head over soon after, Wout Weghorst shot at Silva, and Jadon Sancho was sent clean through only to be ruled offside as Erik ten Haag’s side racked up 15 shots in the south of Spain.

But it was not just about that, it was about Betis too: the had taken as many and they had competed, for an hour at least. They had fallen but that, Manuel Pellegrini had insisted, would not mean they had failed – and that was how the fans felt too.

“Hope goes hand in hand with realism,” Pellegrini had said. Betis had never overcome more than a one-goal deficit in Europe, let alone three, and still less against Manchester United. There is, the coach claimed, an eight-fold different in the budgets of these clubs, but that didn’t mean there would be no belief. The fans had arrived early, gathered in the sunshine, orange blossom announcing the arrival of spring. It had snowed in Manchester; it was 25 degrees here, and they were determined to try. Above all, they came to enjoy this.

Betis had to score three but Pellegrini pointed out, they didn’t have to get them all in five minutes. If one came, then, who knows? If it came early, so much the better. The first approach came from United, Facundo Pellistri just 40 seconds into his first ever United start, when he escaped up the right to put in a cross, but Betis did apply pressure early. A couple of times in the opening three or four minutes, David de Gea had looked a little ill-at-ease as they closed on him and Ayoze Pérez had already taken the first shot. That was blocked by Casemiro, already putting out fires.

Betis could and perhaps should have had the lead just seven minutes in. At one end, Weghorst had dived for a header he only just failed to reach barely a couple of yards out after Casemiro had nodded on a corner. Suddenly, at the other, Juanmi was away. Ayoze’s pass released him, one on one against De Gea. His shot beat the goalkeeper but ran past the post. This was the glimpse of hope they wanted, the place going wild, the team too. “Yes, we can!” they chanted, and maybe the could. Almost immediately Betis almost got through the same space again, between Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

Then from 20 yards Joaquín, who was already a year into his career and had been to a World Cup when Pellistri was born, curled a wonderful shot off the post. Joaquín is 41, but for a moment he was 19 again, lovely feet taking him past Casemiro on the edge of the area. The final pass didn’t quite come off then; seconds later it did, slipping Juanmi behind the defence, where Lisandro Martínez had to scramble away. He and Maguire were soon in animated discussion and it wasn’t about what a nice city this is. United were under pressure, but it wasn’t permanent, that post perhaps the warning they needed.

Betis did find their way through once more, when Ruibal’s angled pass set Juanmi free beyond the back four, De Gea out to block, arms wide, body big. But Casemiro and Fernandes took responsibility and control, the former demonstrating his capacity to time and weigh a pass. Pellistri was lively, always willing to go at his man. And Rashford remained a constant way out, the man they feared most, albeit on the edge of offside.

Fernandes struck over, then saw a shot charged down by Edgar González, and just before half-time a clipped free kick found Pellistri, whose shot came back off the post, with Weghorst diving in to try to reach it. At the whistle, the Benito Villamarín rose in applause. Their team hadn’t turned this round, but they had competed, and they would continue to do so until United slipped in the knife.

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United too will have felt satisfied with how this was going, the gap still significant, the sense that they could still step up if needed. They would have been happier yet had Rashford taken an early chance made for him by Pellistri and Casemiro. The Uruguayan drew everyone towards him then found the Brazilian who dropped it off for Rashford. Alone in front of the keeper, but Silva saved. A moment later, Rashford had another one but, clean through, he sliced a wild shot over the bar. Between those two efforts, Ayoze had seen a header saved by De Gea.

That was Betis’s twelfth effort, United had nine at that point and more would follow. It had been frantic and pretty fun and just when you were wondering how this was still 0-0, it wasn’t. Just when you were wondering how Rashford had not scored from the previous two he did so from a place far less likely. Twenty-five yards out, without warning, except that his very presence is a warning, he suddenly let go, the ball flying into the far corner and taking United through.

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