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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Sevilla find an obdurate David de Gea impossible to pass but Manchester United will need to find more for return leg

Spanish goalkeeper makes a number of vital stops to deny Sevilla in first leg of Uefa Champions Legaue last-16 tie

Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea makes a spectacular save from Sevilla’s Luis Muriel. Jon Nazca / Reuters
Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea makes a spectacular save from Sevilla’s Luis Muriel. Jon Nazca / Reuters

Five minutes before the end of Sevilla’s Uefa Champions League last-16 first leg against Manchester United, the two giant scoreboards at the Sanchez Pizjuan displayed: "Goal attempts: Sevilla 25. Manchester United 5". "On target: Sevilla 8, Manchester United 1".

Below the boards, fans beat drums and sang songs in an atmosphere resembling a big game in Argentina rather than anything in Europe. Sevilla had three times as many corners, they had more possession. It was blacks v whites in kits and the same on the field in terms of their dominance, yet despite those damning statistics, the score stubbornly remained 0-0 and Jose Mourinho referred to the flurry of Sevilla chances as “statistics shots”.

One of those efforts on target had been a 43rd minute Stephen N’Zonzi header which was flying into the United goal until David de Gea tipped the ball over the crossbar. Seconds later, the always calm De Gea made an even better save from Colombian striker Luis Muriel, who had a header saved from six yards after finding space between central defenders Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof. United fans have not seen a United keeper make a better save in a European game since Peter Schmeichel on a freezing night in Vienna in 1996, while Lindelof thanked his goalkeeper and Muriel embraced De Gea.

Back in his homeland where he is so often linked with a return, De Gea kept his United side in the game where the main talking point pre-match had been Paul Pogba starting on the bench after being dropped once again. Mourinho claimed Pogba was “not 100 per cent”. Asked if he was fit to play before the game, Pogba said he was.

Rookie midfielder Scott McTominay again took his place in the team which Mourinho does not consider to be among the favourites for a competition he has twice won with unfancied sides.

There have been numerous reports of disharmony between Paul Pogba, left, and manager Mourinho. Miguel Morenatti / AP Photo
There have been numerous reports of disharmony between Paul Pogba, left, and manager Mourinho. Miguel Morenatti / AP Photo

Given United’s performance, Mourinho’s assessment was correct. His side offered minimal attacking threat, though forward Romelu Lukaku was often isolated. After receiving a lofted ball from Alexis Sanchez in the 25th minute, the Belgian volleyed the ball over in United’s best first-half chance.

Ander Herrera had limped off after 17 minutes, replaced by Pogba who had plenty of time to prove his manager wrong. He didn’t. Charged with passing the ball to Alexis Sanchez in the 49th minute, he hit the ball out of play. The Chilean clapped towards Pogba to encourage him, but this was not to be Pogba’s night, though his manager said: “Paul tried to bring to the game the same kind of qualities, plus his security with the ball. Of course he lost a couple of possessions, but he gave us also some stability, because we had a good percentage of ball possession.”

A 5-3 home defeat to neighbours Real Betis aside, Vincenzo Montello, who had hoped that Pogba wouldn’t start, has improved his team and made them less erratic in only two months in charge. They attacked from the start. Franco Vazquez and Pablo Sarabia were a threat from the right, but they couldn’t take the lead against the Premier League’s tightest defence.

Sanchez was replaced by striker Marcus Rashford with 15 minutes left. Rashford had excelled in United’s previous trip to Spain when they looked so powerful against Celta Vigo in last season’s Europa League semi-final. United were nothing of the sort against Sevilla who are far better versed in European competition and who have won 11 trophies in the past 12 years, also reaching this season’s Copa del Rey final. Sevilla were quickly to the ball and quicker to press, though they couldn’t press home their advantage with a goal.

Juan Mata was applauded by the home fans when he was swapped for Antony Martial four minutes later and the second substitution altered the flow of the game a little, with the 2,500 travelling United fans celebrating after they thought Lukaku has scored, only to see the goal given offside.

But after the final whistle blew and the United players thanked the 2,500 travelling supporters, several of Sevilla’s players went to talk to De Gea. They knew he had been the main difference between the two sides who will meet again in Manchester in two weeks' time. Mourinho’s team will need to improve if they are going to reach the quarter-finals, where, according to the Portuguese, teams start dreaming about winning the competition.

United look a long way off being capable of that, but a 0-0 draw in Andalusia against a team of Sevilla’s quality, in United’s first Champions League knockout game for four years, is not a bad result.