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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - We don’t even know if there will be a second leg to this Europa League last-16 tie between Manchester United and LASK, but there was one truly magical moment from the first leg – even if it was played in a soulless atmosphere behind closed doors.
The game could have been one of the greatest ever but it would have barely mattered.
A large football stadium without fans is a river without water, an opera without music, like an under-23s game in England where the players’ voices are audible throughout.
The Austrian government made the decision to ban any event with more than 500 attending in the interests of protecting its people against the threat of coronavirus.
LASK missed out on a €1 million gate and their biggest game being played in front of the raucous crowds who have accompanied their surprise progress in their first proper European run.
Five hundred people were allowed into the 14,000-seat Linzer Stadion – players, coaches, officials, security, medical staff and perhaps 200 fans.
But it was a hollow exercise that, while taken seriously by players who performed to their best, had the air of a practice match.
With a 5-0 lead and the advantage of next Thursday’s second leg in front of a 60,000-plus crowd at Old Trafford, United strengthened their position as clear favourites.
LASK will not stop them going through as the English team went 11 games unbeaten, with nine clean sheets from those games, but will there even be a last eight, four or May final in Gdansk?
If there is, then the Nigerian Odion Ighalo, who has yet to score in his 31 minutes over four games of Premier League action, will probably be key.
Ighalo, 30, has scored four times in four Cup games and only three starts for United as he does the job – contrary to most critics’ expectations – that he was brought on loan to do after an injury to Marcus Rashford.
Bruno Fernandes, ever United’s creative force who links the midfield and forwards perfectly, tried to pass forward to Daniel James.
The ball hit a defender and rebounded to Fernandes who chipped it forward to Ighalo.
He controlled it with both feet and with his left struck a shot that rose from the edge of the box into the top corner.
The biggest cheer came from the 14 men on the United bench as the Nigerian ran towards an empty bank of blue seats and saluted towards the sky.
Ighalo's fourth goal since he joined United on transfer deadline day was also his best.
“He had three touches and his fourth was the finish,” said his manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
“All those touches were high quality but he had to make them to make the space for himself.
"The striker was on the half volley with perfect timing. Nobody would have saved that, it was the perfect finish.”
LASK, whose well-organised efficiency and never-say-die spirit has taken them to the top of the Austrian league, showed glimpses of counter-attack.
But the team with the wage bill of a third-tier English club had none of United’s quality nor strength in depth.
LASK also had injuries to four key players and used three others out of their usual positions.
They were missing the home support that, despite a running track adding distance between the stands and the pitch, had been as electric as anything seen in Austrian football.
Ighalo, who had taken a knock to the face that led to a LASK player being booked in the first half, also hit the post after 61 minutes.
“He’s a goalscorer, he’s a striker, he doesn’t worry about all that nonsense of build-up play – I’m joking,” Solskjaer said.
“He knows his role in the team. He’s very good with his back to goal but maybe the best thing about him is his personality. He’s got the lot.”
Four minutes earlier, Daniel James made it 2-0 to United. Juan Mata made it 3-0 after 82 minutes, and Mason Greenwood 4-0 from an assist by Tahith Chong with his 12th goal of the season, in time added on.
When Andreas Pereira scored United’s final goal with a strike from distance that the goalkeeper Alexander Schlager should have saved, there was little response, not even from the United bench.
The coaches were happy, the players performed well in trying circumstances and it was a 5-0 win away from home.
But the outcome from all of United’s endeavour is impossible to predict.
Updated: March 13, 2020 09:41 AM
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