LINZ, Austria — Manchester United comfortably won their Europa League round-of-16 first leg against LASK Linz on Thursday, but what it means beyond that is, as things stand, anyone’s guess.
In theory, United have one foot in the quarterfinals after a 5-0 victory at Linzer Stadion on Thursday. In reality, it is a more of a step into the unknown.
UEFA will hold a meeting on Tuesday to decide the fate of this season’s European club competitions and Euro 2020 in response to the spread of the coronavirus. This game was played behind closed doors as a precaution following measures implemented by the Austrian government on Tuesday but it is possible the return leg, scheduled to be held at Old Trafford in a week’s time, will not be played at all.
With Serie A and La Liga already suspended and three Leicester players showing symptoms of COVID-19, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players do not know for sure they will line up against Tottenham on Sunday. After a day of changing circumstances, report and counter report, even this game in Austria seemed to be in doubt right up to the last minute.
If Solskjaer is asked to field a team at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, he will at least be able to pick one in good form. It is now 11 games unbeaten — including eight wins and nine clean sheets — but whether it will end up counting for anything is another matter entirely.
“The boys were fantastic,” said Solskjaer afterwards. “I think they deserve a lot of credit and praise for the way they went about the job. There was loads of quality in our finishing, fantastic goals and some football we should be proud of.
“For us it counts because we know what we can do and we’re still improving. We’ll just have to wait for the outcome of the meetings.”
For the record, Odion Ighalo put United ahead in the first half with a goal so good it deserved more than a polite clap from a few fans in an otherwise empty stadium.
Bruno Fernandes’ clip to the Nigerian striker was clever but Ighalo overshadowed the buildup with three juggled touches and a left-foot finish from the edge of the penalty area that cannoned in off the underside of the crossbar. It was his fourth United goal in just three starts and comfortably his best yet. Solskjaer was so impressed he could only puff his cheeks out in appreciation.
Ighalo went through his usual routine — kneeling on the ground and pointing to the sky — but there was no one in the stands to join in his jubilation. The atmosphere could not have been more different than the raucous celebrations following the derby victory in United’s last outing.
A few travelling fans locked outside could be heard singing and chanting as the teams emerged from the tunnel while a cameraman from a fan YouTube channel occasionally made himself heard among 100 or so LASK fans made up of families and officials. Those United fans not trying to get a glimpse of the pitch through gaps in the gates watched the game at one of Linz’s sports bars. They saw an accomplished away performance in Europe.
LASK, top of the Austrian league, have beaten Sporting Lisbon and PSV Eindhoven at the Linzer Stadion this season, but they were swept aside by United.
After Igaho’s stunning opener gave the visitors a half-time lead, Daniel James cut in from the left to score a second on 58 minutes. It came at the end of the stadium where a few United fans had congregated behind the fence and they saw enough of James’ first goal since August to prompt a mini celebration but, again, it probably deserved more recognition.
In between the odd round of applause you could hear Sergio Romero tell his defence to “push, push, push” and talk to Eric Bailly in Spanish. There were shouts of “yes” from the bench when Juan Mata collected Fred’s pass to make it 3-0 nine minutes from time before Mason Greenwood raced through in the stoppage time to lash in a fourth. Andreas Pereira’s speculative effort moments later made it 5-0 with help from LASK goalkeeper Alexander Schlager.
Ahead of the game, Solskjaer warned his players to stay focused in unusual circumstances and they delivered.
“These players are very focused,” said Solskjaer. “There was no doubt in my mind that we were going to do well. After the warm-up, Michael [Carrick] and Kieran [McKenna] came to me and said the boys were really good and focused. I have to praise them. They are very professional.”
Their professionalism will be tested again in the coming days as they begin preparations for a game against Tottenham that ultimately may not take place.