Marcus Rashford’s superb free-kick gave Manchester United control of their Europa League semi-final against Celta Vigo.
The 19-year-old striker’s curling effort not only gave United the lead, but also a precious away goal going into next Thursday’s second leg at Old Trafford.
With United outside the Premier League’s top four – a point behind Manchester City and four off third-placed Liverpool – the Europa League perhaps represents their best chance of earning a place in next season’s Champions League.
They looked to have spurned their best chances in northern Spain – three times they were denied in the first half by home goalkeeper Sergio Alvarez.
As Celta improved, United’s wastefulness seemed increasingly important, only for Rashford to produce the sort of quality needed to beat the excellent Alvarez.
Returning home with a lead, Jose Mourinho’s side will be strong favourites to progress to face Ajax or Lyon in Stockholm on 24 May in the final of a competition they have never won.
Rashford’s moment of magic
Rashford was one of the three United players thwarted by Alvarez in a first period the visitors had the better of.
His arcing strike was heading for the top corner before Alvarez leapt to his left, with the Spaniard also stopping a surging Henrikh Mkhitaryan and diving to push away a Jesse Lingard prod from eight yards out.
With United seeing less of the ball in the second period, Rashford – who scored the extra-time winner in the quarter-final against Anderlecht – stood over a free-kick to the right of the Celta penalty area.
After Daley Blind’s decoy run, the England international lofted the ball over the wall, past the outstretched left hand of Alvarez and just inside the far post.
No cause for Celta concern
By then, Celta could have been out of the tie, having been kept on level terms by the brilliance of their goalkeeper.
In their first European semi-final, the hosts did not look to be any better than their current domestic position – 11th in La Liga and on the back of three successive defeats. United should have every confidence of progressing from their first European semi in six years.
Celta did have chances – both Daniel Wass and former Liverpool player Iago Aspas headed wide when they should have done better, while Pione Sisto’s deflected shot forced Sergio Romero to save in the second half.
But United’s front three of Rashford, Lingard and Mkhitaryan were more lively, while Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini dominated midfield.
Mixed injury news for United
This was United’s 58th game of a season that promises six more matches if they make it to Stockholm.
When Eric Bailly limped off in the draw against Swansea on Sunday, Mourinho’s squad looked to be further stretched, especially at the back. Luke Shaw had already been injured in that game, while Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo were on the sidelines.
However, Bailly was fit enough to start in Spain, alongside midfielder Pogba, who has recovered from a muscle strain.
Centre-back Smalling, who had not played for United since 19 March because of a knee injury, was on the bench.
Still, it was not all positive news for Mourinho. Ashley Young, himself a substitute, lasted only 11 minutes before suffering what appeared to a hamstring problem, paving the way for Smalling’s return.
Man of the match – Sergio Alvarez
‘Let’s hope Old Trafford wants us to win’
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho: “I am very pleased with the performance but not with the result. At half-time we should have had three, or at least two goals.
“We played well enough to have the tie closed, but we have to go and play at Old Trafford.
“Rashford is a 19-year-old kid who is in love with football. He stays after training for half an hour to practice taking free-kicks and waits for the opportunity.
“We tried to win the match but we missed chances. We played well, we were compact against a team who are difficult to play against.
“Let’s hope Old Trafford want us to win because when Old Trafford wants it, we win.”
United’s hectic schedule continues with a Premier League trip to Arsenal at 16:00 BST on Sunday, while Celta have a domestic date at Malaga on the same day.
The return leg is at Old Trafford next Thursday (20:05 BST kick-off).