Europa League: Man Utd settle for play-off despite Garnacho winner

Manchester United face a difficult Europa League knockout stage play-off encounter after failing to capitalise on teenager Alejandro Garnacho’s excellent start in a two-goal loss to Real Sociedad.

Both teams were already certain of progress from Group E before heading into the San Sebastian clash, but United’s shock defeat to the LaLiga club in September meant they traveled to Spain in second place.

Garnacho’s magnificent strike got the Red Devils off to a flying start as they sought to dethrone the hosts, but they struggled in the second half as Sociedad held firm for a 1-0 loss that keeps Sociedad top of the group on goal difference.

Manchester United’s play-off

Erik ten Hag’s runners-up will now have to play an extra round in mid-February against a team that has been eliminated from the Champions League, with Barcelona, Juventus, and his previous club Ajax among the possible opponents.

What happened in the game?

On a night that was only 17 minutes old, Garnacho beat George Best as United’s youngest non-English striker in European competition with a beautiful finish.

Cristiano Ronaldo set up the 18-year-old’s first senior goal, which he lifted narrowly over near the end of a first half that saw David De Gea make an incredible double stop.

But Ten Hag’s team was unable to capitalize on their strong start, with defender Harry Maguire being used as a replacement striker in a frantic – and ultimately futile – bid to score the second goal.

The road to the Europa League final in Budapest in May has become more difficult as a result of this outcome, and United will learn their play-off opponents on Monday.

At the Reale Arena, Garnacho, Donny van de Beek, and Victor Lindelof moved into the starting lineup as the injury-plagued hosts opened strongly, with Carlos Fernandez striking into the side-netting unaware he had strayed offside.

After that panic, United settled, and Ronaldo quickly got under the skin of the locals, who whistled him when his penalty claim against Robin Le Normand was disregarded by the authorities.

The 37-year-old was dissatisfied, but his demeanor improved in the 17th minute.

Bruno Fernandes headed on De Gea’s long kick forwards to Ronaldo, who put a perfectly weighted pass through for Garnacho to drive down the left and score.

The VAR confirmed the 18-year-first old’s goal for United after determining Fernandes had not strayed offside.

As Real attempted to equalize, ex-Newcastle midfielder Mikel Merino saw a shot stopped, but United held firm and appeared more likely to score a second.

Garnacho fell after some deft footwork, and Ronaldo looked stunned after missing a larger chance in the 42nd minute.

Ronaldo forced a mistake from Jon Pacheco as he sought to deal with a long pass, but he hoisted over goalkeeper Alejandro Remiro and the crossbar from just inside the area. There was no offside signal.

Real were producing little, but De Gea was called upon right before the break.

The veteran United goalkeeper made a one-handed save to deny Andoni Gorosabel’s dipping half-volley from 20 yards, then stretched himself brilliantly to prevent Pablo Marin from turning in the rebound from a tight angle.

The home side came back from the interval energized, but they were unable to properly test De Gea, whose outfield teammates were losing their way.

Ten Hag tried Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay, with the midfielder shockingly replacing centre-back Victor Lindelof, but it didn’t work.

Imanol Alguacil’s hosts were cleverly slowing down the game, and desperate United even brought in centre-back Maguire as an attacker.

Still, the visitors worked hard, and Casemiro had a shot saved in a 90th-minute brawl that was eventually stopped by a delayed offside flag.

Five minutes of stoppage time passed as United won in Spain but lost the race for first place.

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