MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – The Europa League was supposed to offer some respite in a tough season for Manchester United, and give the team a back-door route into next season’s Champions League.
Instead, the competition has provided a new dose of ignominy for the fallen English giants — and deepened their already-extensive injury list.
United squandered a lead and lost 2-1 to FC Midtjylland in the first leg of their last-32 match on Thursday. The Danish club was featuring at this stage in European competition for the first time, was playing its first competitive game for two months while on a winter break from domestic competition, and was only formed in 1999 — the year United won the Champions League-Premier League-F.A. Cup treble.
Those glory years under Alex Ferguson are long gone for United, with this latest humiliation heaping more pressure on current manager Louis van Gaal while his team stumbles in fifth place in the Premier League. United was only playing in the Europa League after being ousted from the Champions League at the group stage.
“In the second half, I have to say Midtjylland was winning every ball,” an unhappy van Gaal said, before lamenting a knee injury sustained by goalkeeper David de Gea in the warmup that took United’s list of absentees to 14 players.
The biggest winners were in Spain, where Valencia — managed by former United captain Gary Neville — thrashed Rapid Vienna 6-0, and Sevilla boosted its quest for a third straight title in Europe’s second-tier competition by beating Molde 3-0. A Spaniard also scored possibly the goal of the night, with Aritz Aduriz sending a looping volley into the net from 30 meters to give Athletic Bilbao a 1-0 win at Marseille.
Borussia Dortmund beat FC Porto 2-0 through goals by right-back Lukasz Piszczek and Germany forward Marco Reus, and Denis Suarez scored with a free kick off the underside of the crossbar to give Villarreal a 1-0 win at home to Napoli.
Fiorentina and Tottenham drew 1-1, and Liverpool was held 0-0 at Augsburg.
It would have been more embarrassing for Man United in Denmark had it not been for a string of brilliant saves by Sergio Romero, drafted in at the late minute to replace De Gea.
Paul Onuachu was one of those denied by Romero’s acrobatics, but the substitute had the final say when he beat Juan Mata to the ball on the edge of the area and drove a low shot inside the post. Mata, whose attempted tackle was weak, was immediately substituted.
Netherlands winger Memphis Depay gave United the lead in the 37th with his first goal in 2016, before Pione Sisto equalized with a low, slightly deflected shot after pouncing on Michael Carrick’s poor pass in midfield.
The second leg is next Thursday at Old Trafford.
“Still we have a chance, I think,” van Gaal said.
After a tough start to managerial life at Valencia, it’s two wins in a week for Neville. His team became the first side to score five goals in the first half of a Europa League game, with Santi Mina grabbing two of them against Rapid.
Fernando Llorente scored two goals and Kevin Gameiro added a third for Sevilla in a comfortable home win as the Spanish team looks to back up title wins in 2014 and ’15.
Tottenham was pegged back after scoring a penalty through Nacer Chadli, with Federico Bernardeschi grabbing Fiorentina’s second-half equalizer.
Anderlecht, Saint-Etienne, Bayer Leverkusen and Sparta Prague were also winners.