The kids are alright. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer followed through on his promise to place his faith in youth, and started a very young Manchester United side in Thursday’s Europa League opener. Solskjaer’s Striplings (we’re working on a name) showed both why they are so highly rated, and why they all may not be ready for the big stage just yet. The young Reds were in control of the match from start to finish, but needed a late first senior goal from Mason Greenwood to secure a 1-0 win.
United were dominant right from kick off. After a sustained period of pressure, the Reds should have been ahead in the 12th minute, but Marcus Rashford’s shot from 2 yards out cannoned off the goalkeeper. After that, Greenwood looked certain to open his United account only to flash his shot wide. In the 20th minute, Rashford again missed the target from close range before denied a minute later by Nenad Eric’s sharp save.
The Reds were not so much knocking at the door as assailing it with a battering ram. FC Astana were being thoroughly outclassed, and to add insult to injury, the Old Trafford crowd could be heard breaking into a rendition of “Borat, give us a song.”
By the half hour mark, the game was being played totally in Astana’s half. The average position of Diogo Dalot — the nominal right-back — was closer to the opposition box than it was to the half-way line. Axel Tuanzebe was playing as an auxiliary midfielder, and Angel Gomes was seeing a lot of the ball trying to pick apart Astana’s stubborn low block.
Typically, the visitors’ only real chance of the half was a result of a Phil Jones giveaway in midfield, followed by Nemanja Matić being too slow to keep up with a runner. Luckily, the ensuing bobbled shot was straight at Sergio Romero, who collected easily.
At halftime, United were totally in control, but didn’t yet have any goals to show for their dominance.
After the break, the Reds set about their business with renewed purpose. Within 90 seconds, Rashford had a solo run that ended in a corner, and Marcos Rojo drilled a low ball just inches away from both the far post and the onrushing boots of Greenwood and Gomes.
A Greenwood toe poke was deflected and dribbled agonizingly wide. A Rashford free kick lashed the top of the net. Marcos Rojo tried his first rabona of the season. Fred drew a save from a yet another direct free kick. United were trying everything to break the deadlock.
At the 68th minute mark, Solskjaer sent on reinforcements. Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard came on in place of the impressive Gomes and the not-so-impressive Tahith Chong. By that point, Astana had slowly started creating one or two chances of their own, and United’s profligacy was now threatening to turn a promising performance into a humiliating result.
The Reds finally got their breakthrough in the 74th minute, through a young man who is tipped for a very bright future. Mason Greenwood collected the ball in the box, dribbled past his defender twice, and then finished confidently through the keeper’s legs from a sharp angle. Old Trafford — which had been in fine voice all evening — collectively breathed a sigh of relief.
Not long after Marcos Rojo had a shot flash wide from 25 yards (again), Ashley Young came on in his place, presumably before the mad Argentinian had the chance to try something even more audacious.
The home side were pushing for more goals. Lingard had a fierce drive pushed on to the post and back into play, but Dalot could not put away the rebound. Lingard was denied again two minutes before full time, failing to beat Eric after a Greenwood-led counter-attack.
In the end, United had to settle for a narrow result that did not reflect their dominance, but their European campaign is off to a winning start, and more than one of these second-string players would have left the pitch feeling like they gave the manager a selection headache for the match at West Ham this weekend.