Paul Pogba's rift with Jose Mourinho and his benching in Sevilla were all the talk entering the Champions League last-16 first leg, but David De Gea took the focus on the field with his stellar play in goal in a 0-0 draw.
Manchester United holds a narrow edge after the first leg of its Champions League last 16 tie after a goalless draw at Sevilla, although it took two stunning reaction saves by David De Gea to keep the score level.
The big news before kickoff had been the absence from the starting lineup of Paul Pogba, although he ended up coming on after 17 minutes for Ander Herrera and played out the string, as United defended plenty in Spain, buoyed by its goalkeeper.
In Wednesday’s other game, Shakhtar Donetsk came from behind to beat Roma 2-1. Facundo Ferreyra canceled out Cengiz Under’s opener early in the second half, and Fred whipped in a free kick off the underside of the bar with 19 minutes remaining to deliver the go-ahead strike.
Here are three thoughts on the day in the Champions League, which wrapped up the first legs for the round:
Digging deeper into Pogba's benching
There have been rumors for some time that the relationship between Jose Mourinho and Pogba is not good, but that story took on new legs on Wednesday as the midfielder, signed for a then-record £89.3 million in the summer of 2016, was left out of United’s starting XI in Seville. Pogba had been taken off in United’s recent defeats to both Tottenham and Newcastle.
In the former, he had repeatedly engaged in animated conversations with his manager who was seemingly unhappy with how he had played; in the latter, Mourinho made little secret of his disappointment with Pogba. He condemned his lack of a jump when attempting to defend the free kick from which Newcastle scored the game’s only goal and then said he had taken him off because he wanted “a better way to come out in the first phase” with more “simplicity,” the clear implication being that Pogba was over-complicating matters.
There were reports then of a dressing-room row as Mourinho criticized Pogba and Phil Jones, and stories subsequently surfaced that Pogba had asked for a change of shape to 4-3-3. That shape came in Seville, but without him (or Jones) being part of it. Pogba missed Saturday’s FA Cup win over Huddersfield through illness and it was hard not to see his relegation to the bench as significant. Mourinho, after all, had described his replacement, Scott McTominay, three days ago as having “a normal haircut, no tattoos, no big cars, no big watches...” which is as true about him as it is notably untrue about the man he replaced.
But within 16 minutes Pogba was in action as Herrera, who hadn’t played for three weeks and that as a sub, pulled up with what appeared to be a hamstring injury. In what is in theory his strongest position, on the left of a midfield three, though, the former Juventus player was barely involved.
Stalemate in Spain
Sevilla-Man United on the field was stodgy, far more cautious than the majority of the round of 16 ties so far, more like a traditional European first leg. But after 44 minutes in which there had been almost no meaningful goalmouth action, De Gea pulled off two startling reflex saves in the space of a minute, first from a Stephen Nzonzi header and then, even more spectacularly, one from Luis Muriel, who found himself unmarked four yards out. The stats showed that Sevilla created far more chances than United (25 to 6), but there was a lack of urgency to the hosts' attack, and it was easy to see why they are among the bottom half of scorers in the Spanish top flight.
United’s only real chance had come after 25 minutes, as Alexis Sanchez picked out Romelu Lukaku with a clever lofted diagonal pass. It fell on his favored left foot, just inside the box, but such is his lack of confidence these days that the Belgian never looked like scoring. Still, given Mourinho had seemingly set up to close the game down, he was probably happy enough with the outcome leading into a weekend league clash vs. Chelsea.
A tale of a new prospect and a former one
Cengiz Under has only started nine league games in his Roma career. The Turkish winger is only 20 and he hadn’t scored for Roma until Feb. 4, when he got the opener in a win over Verona. Since then, he hasn’t been able to stop scoring. He got two more against Benevento in Roma’s next game and then the opener in a 2-0 win over Udinese at the weekend. He broke the deadlock Wednesday as well, running onto Edin Dzeko’s neat angled pass and beating Andriy Pyatov with a slightly mishit finish.
Facundo Ferreyra, nicknamed "Chucky" after the doll in the Child’s Play films, perhaps knows how he feels as expectation grows. The 26-year-old was once hailed as the future of Argentinian football, but after a proposed move to Europe fell through following Banfield’s relegation in 2012 and he ended up joining Velez Sarsfield, his focus seemed to waver. Ferreyra was criticized as ponderous, his attitude questioned.
He did eventually get his move to Europe in 2013, joining Shakhtar after finally hitting form with Velez, but almost immediately he suffered an ankle injury and ended up being loaned to Newcastle, where he didn’t start a game before returning to Ukraine. Finally, in the last couple of season, the goals have begun to flow: 16 in 28 games last season then 20 in 26 this before Wednesday’s match when he found the equalizer with a strong run and neat finish on the counter. A Fred free kick sealed a 2-1 win for the home side, but Ferreyra missed a golden chance to make it 3-1, his close-range shot deflecting over off the outstretched boot of the grounded Bruno Peres.