There was not the gulf some might have anticipated at Old Trafford last week as Manchester United welcomed an injury-hit Milan side.
Four days on from a superb win at rivals Manchester City, United came within two minutes of another big result and a 1-0 lead to take to San Siro, but it was an advantage they scarcely deserved.
A moment of ingenuity from Amad Diallo, heading his first United goal from an excellent Bruno Fernandes pass, had Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men in front.
At the other end, without Theo Hernandez, Hakan Calhanoglu and, of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Milan repeatedly threatened but lacked the same quality. They had 15 attempts – worth just 1.0 expected non-penalty goals (xG) – and only scored with the last of them, when Simon Kjaer’s close-range header evaded the clutches of Dean Henderson.
That away goal sets up an intriguing second leg in which United must now score, although they might have put this Europa League last-16 tie beyond Milan prior to Kjaer’s equaliser.
As the Rossoneri fashioned only one ‘big chance’, from which Opta would expect them to score, United had two from just seven shots. Harry Maguire somehow hit the post and Daniel James stabbed wide, chances that contributed heavily to a superior xG total of 1.4.
Those misses may well prove costly when the tie continues at San Siro on Thursday.
Hernandez and Calhanoglu returned to the Milan XI against Napoli on Sunday and are set to be joined against United by the team’s talisman.
In the week his return to the international stage for Sweden at Euro 2020 was confirmed, Ibrahimovic will enjoy another reunion, fit to play some part against his former club.
“His return is important,” head coach Stefano Pioli said of Ibrahimovic, who has been out since February with a thigh injury. “He will not be able to have 90 minutes in his legs and tomorrow we will see what to do.”
United were hanging on against short-handed opponents, restricted to just 41.2 per cent of the possession in the final 15 minutes, 36.4 per cent of which played out in the home side’s own third. It was an encounter that should give Milan huge confidence now Hernandez, Calhanoglu and Ibrahimovic are available.
For all their exciting build-up play, the final pass was missing in Manchester. That cutting edge is returning in Milan.
Among Serie A defenders this season, Hernandez ranks joint-third for goals (five), joint-fourth for assists (six) and fourth for chances created (45) in all competitions. He is seventh across all players in the division for expected assists from open play (xA – 3.9) in league action.
Hakan Calhanoglu’s numbers are even more impressive. He has created 99 chances in all competitions this term, second only to opposite number Fernandes (107) across Europe’s ‘top five’ leagues.
Having failed to handle Kjaer and Co. from set-pieces last week, United have reason to fear Calhanoglu’s delivery. No player can top the 51 opportunities he has forged from set plays. Five of his 10 assists have come from such scenarios.
Crucially, too, of course, Calhanoglu will have a 39-year-old Swede to look for, a focal point also absent last time out.
Rafael Leao played up front for 90 minutes and attempted only a single shot, having four touches in the United box. Ibrahimovic this season averages 4.8 shots and 8.5 touches in the opposition area per 90 minutes.
His xG rate is the highest in Serie A among those to play 500 minutes or more, at 0.8 per 90, and he usually takes those chances, too. With 16 goals from 80 attempts in all competitions, he scores one in five.
Maguire and James were wasteful in the first leg; it seems unlikely Ibrahimovic, always one for the big stage, will be similarly so.
If Milan can dictate the play again this week, they have the attacking talent to settle this tie.