A game-changing replacement was the plan for Milan. They were not counting on the winner of the game coming off the bench of Manchester United.
Stefano Pioli still had to play his trump card after 135 minutes in the Europa League where Milan had been the best team.
The Rossoneri pressed United in the first half at San Siro on Thursday, the visitors underdog and submissive despite needing a goal to advance.
However, the clear chances have still not come for the home side. Five efforts before the break did not spark undue concern for Dean Henderson, an all too familiar pattern for Milan, who had 15 attempts at Old Trafford but waited for the last of them, in the 92nd minute, to equalize .
Theo Hernandez and Hakan Calhanoglu had returned to the sidelines for this second leg, but the man most likely to win the game at United, a man they know well, was only fit enough for the bench.
Pioli said Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has been out since February, will feature but not for 90 minutes. The team record confirmed that the impact substitute role was Milan’s preferred use of their talisman.
The only problem was that when Ibrahimovic returned to the fray, ready to torment his former team-mates, United had their goal and the game had changed.
Staging for the San Siro super submarine
United have not lost in the Premier League since January 2020, they are a suitable team to play during the break and thus enjoy their travels.
But their last defeat on the road in all competitions saw their elimination in the Champions League in December.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer headed for RB Leipzig who only needed a draw but found their plans in tatters after two minutes when United fell behind, forced to continue the game rather than counter their opponents .
Only Inter and Paris Saint-Germain in Europe’s “top five” leagues have had more quick breaks in all competitions this season than United (34), whose 10 goals in these situations cannot be exceeded. Of those, 24 quick breaks and seven of 10 goals came out of their homes.
Trying to break through opponents reluctant to attack at Old Trafford was more of a challenge for United and it also proved in the first half when Milan didn’t need to give up their patient approach, attempting to fend off numerous passes released.
“We were horrible,” was Luke Shaw’s post-game recap of the opening period.
So, as Pioli kept Ibrahimovic’s brief watch at half-time, Solskjaer blinked first.
Peerless Pogba steals the show
Marcus Rashford was the man to give way in the meantime, a recent ankle problem possibly disturbing the striker as he only enjoyed 16 touches in the first half, the least of all players United exteriors.
But Solskjaer did not necessarily have to turn to Paul Pogba, who like Ibrahimovic was returning from a thigh injury. First-leg scorer Amad Diallo could have seemed a more obvious fit on the left flank as United looked for an outlet.
Where Pioli was playing it safe, keeping Ibrahimovic under cover for a big finish, the Red Devils manager took a calculated risk.
Only 172 seconds passed before it paid off. Pogba kept a United attack alive on the left side of the area and pleaded for Fred to attempt an ambitious film.
Although a muddled Milan defense blocked, they were unable to clear and Fred’s hard work ensured that Soualiho Meite’s challenge only pushed the ball back into Pogba’s path.
It was the kind of opportunity Rashford would have relished, but he couldn’t have been as cool as the substitute, who feigned and then pulled off a nice finish in front of a sore footed Gianluigi Donnarumma.
The goal won the draw, but it was only the first contribution to a sparkling 45-minute performance. Despite watching the first half from the sidelines, no United player has had more shots (three) or created more chances (two) full-time, a classic match-turn substitution .
“It always helps when you have a world class player like Paul to come and make a difference,” added Shaw. “He did that. It’s great to find him.
No late rescue act of the Rossoneri
The world-class Milan player, now 39, followed ex-colleague Pogba onto the pitch with 25 minutes remaining.
Pioli might have preferred to call on Ibrahimovic to see the game, protecting a result, but instead needs a moment of inspiration, a moment that could and should have happened.
The one “ big chance ”, from which Opta would expect the player to score, in the 90 minutes, fell in Ibrahimovic’s path when he climbed over Shaw to meet the Calhanoglu center.
Henderson, at fault when Simon Kjaer scored with a similar header last week, had enough on the ball this time and the luck was gone. It was Ibrahimovic’s only attempt, as he was taken offside three times.
It was meant to be the veteran striker’s tie and instead he fell short of the man he used to advise. Pogba and United continue their march.