“Bruno, Bruno” was the ecstatic cry offered to Manchester United’s talisman, whose goal here – his side’s third of the night – killed off Real Betis and gave the Portuguese a dash of redemption four days after the 7-0 humbling by Liverpool.
Fernandes’s petulant display in that horror show led to his status as United’s stand-in captain being questioned, so to score in this last-16 first leg was the perfect response – as was the result for Erik ten Hag’s team.
In choosing the same XI that earned the wrong kind of immortality at the hands of their arch rivals, the manager’s thinking was an if-it’s-broke-you-lot fix-it approach. It worked, though United were tentative before an upgrade in performance after the interval. Antony, so far, is proving a one-trick footballer but what an act it is : he once more dipped on to his left foot before caressing in United’s second goal to calm his team.
United were brisk when winning a first corner through Diogo Dalot and then impressive when scoring moments later. Six minutes had not ticked by when Bruno Fernandes’s cross, aimed at the lurking Wout Weghorst, caused Luiz Felipe to hit the deck via his backside and inadvertently tap the ball to Marcus Rashford. The forward rolled it forward and blazed past Claudio Bravo for his 26th goal in United colours this term.
It was a fine start but Ten Hag was soon howling instructions at Fred and was not impressed when a David de Gea pass went straight to Luiz Henrique, the type of sloppy football the manager detests: the passage of play encapsulated United’s opening half in microcosm. Next, the camera cut to Ten Hag in disbelief mode after Weghorst somehow missed a classic poacher’s chance from a Luke Shaw cross following a one-two with Rashford.
United lacked a killer touch and were vulnerable from Betis’s quick passing, as when Felipe’s burst engineered a corner, and another aimless De Gea hoof – this time sending the ball out of play – signalled the home side could really use a second goal. It nearly came after a Shaw nod-on turned Betis and allowed Antony, switching to the left, to find Rashford. His effort came to Fernandes, whose own shot was deflected for a corner.
Then Betis equalised. Ayoze Pérez was found in space on the right after Juanmi had chested the ball on to his left arm. The on-loan Leicester forward hit a clean strike that arrowed past De Gea into the far corner and the finish stood, the VAR having no interest in intervening.
Cue jubilation from the travelling Betis fans and a grim-faced Ten Hag. Next, William Carvalho claimed a corner and United were relieved when Fernandes cleared the delivery from Joaquín, the visiting 41-year-old captain. At the close of the first half snow swirled and there was another close call for Ten Hag’s side after De Gea latest calamity had the goalkeeper spraying the ball to Juanmi. His pass found Pérez whose effort was deflected on to United’s left post by Lisandro Martínez and away to safety.
Ten Hag abandoned the Anfield 11 as Aaron Wan-Bissaka took over from Dalot at right-back for the second half. The ex-Crystal Palace man’s opening contribution was to sell Antony short with a pass. United continued to look disjointed and there was a sense of their confidence draining, which was scant surprise after the humiliation at Liverpool.
But then Antony intervened with a carbon copy of a goal he has registered a few times since joining in the summer. A drop of the shoulder was followed by a jink inside and a floated, curled effort that sailed perfectly in, hitting the inside of Bravo’s right-hand side-netting.
Ten Hag punched the air and the fans in Old Trafford rediscovered their vocal cords as the atmosphere moved from nervy to cheery. Fernandes, who had created Antony’s goal, soon turned scorer, flicking a header beyond Bravo from a Shaw corner. The visiting keeper showed soft hands at precisely the wrong moment.
The goal had the Stretford End delirious and United’s captain mobbed by teammates happy for a player who had been unfairly maligned after the Liverpool defeat. Fernandes was not finished. A slide-rule ball into Antony went close to creating a fourth but the Brazilian’s dink was too high.
Antony could not finish, either, when later roving in, as United enjoyed the closing phases, pinging possession about and frustrating their opponents. But Weghorst surely put his side safely into the quarter-finals before the second leg with a goal-sniffer’s finish for what was only his second for the club.