Before Manchester United even stepped onto the pitch at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, there was a barrel-load of intrigue thanks to Jose Mourinho’s decision to omit Paul Pogba from the starting line-up.
But even an unexpectedly early introduction for the French midfielder couldn’t inspire United to victory over Sevilla, with the 0-0 result flattering them. They had six shots to the home side’s 25. On any other night against any other Champions League team, you get the feeling this kind of display would have seen them well beaten.
The first twist in the tale came just 16 minutes in as Ander Herrera went to ground under a challenge and immediately threw his right boot to the floor in clear frustration at an injury which signalled an early end to his evening. Pogba was off the bench and stripped for action almost before Herrera’s boot had even met the turf.
The Frenchman’s entrance had little real effect on proceedings, though. Both before and after his introduction, United lacked any kind of cohesion in attack.
Romelu Lukaku was regularly sought out too early with only defenders around him and no team-mates looking to make anything of his knock-downs. When the ball was won on the left, there were often too few options available on the right to spread the play.
It was an attacking performance every bit as dysfunctional as United have appeared as a group in recent weeks. At the other end, they once again relied heavily on the brilliance of David de Gea to pull them out of the mire. Indeed, he made eight saves, the most by a United goalkeeper in the Champions League since Edwin van der Sar in the 2011 Champions League final against Barcelona.
In the space of a single minute shortly before the interval, the Spaniard denied first Charles N’Zonzi and then Luis Muriel with spectacular saves. If the one to keep out N’Zonzi was good, the denial of Muriel’s header was nothing short of phenomenal.
After the break, United were barely any better. Their players were all too often on different wavelengths as they looked to put attacks together. When the moment called for some verve, they showed caution. When opportunities opened up, they found ways to break them down.
Mourinho’s mindset had clearly been a cautionary one, but that only goes part of the way to explaining the ragged nature of the performance. When United players weren’t stepping on each other’s toes, they were making gestures of displeasure at the service being provided elsewhere.
When Alexis Sanchez, who had been frustrated and frustrating in equal measure, was replaced by Marcus Rashford for the final 15 minutes there was a little more direction about the visitors’ attack. Once Anthony Martial joined him in the stead of Juan Mata, United suddenly looked an actual threat.
But quite why it took them so long to sort their act out is anyone’s guess. Had they gone for it earlier against a stylish but ultimately unspectacular Sevilla outfit, they could have got far more out of the game.
In the end, they will take the 0-0 draw. It leaves them needing a home win of any description to send them to the quarter-final stage on which the club depend financially, and Mourinho says is the minimum needed to consider a team a contender.
On this performance, though, they are a long way from having a serious hope of winning the Champions League this season.