MAN UNITED 1, FC ASTANA 0
Teenager Mason Greenwood came to Manchester United’s rescue with the matchwinning goal against Kazakhstan side FC Astana in their opening Europa League group game.
It had been a frustrating night for the Reds until the 73rd minute when the 17-year-old striker’s first senior goal could not have been better timed.
Greenwood, making his ninth senior appearance, finally opened his goalscoring account though he deserved his element of good fortune.
The ball went through the legs of goalkeeper Nenad Eric but the Bradford-born youngster, who has been at the club since the age of six, deserved his luck after his approach play, in which he cut in from the right, was scintillating.
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer praised Greenwood describing the young player as a delight to work with.Embed from Getty Images
He said: “It was a great finish through the legs of the goalkeeper. He is a natural to play football and score goals.
“He showed glimpses today of what he can do. He is going to be an important player. He will grow and develop.”
The win was no more than United deserved after they enjoyed 75 per cent possession and had 20 goal attempts to Astana’s three, seven on target to none and 13 corners to one.
Solskjaer admitted: “We made it hard for ourselves. Games like these, you want to make sure you win the game in the first 20 minutes and you can enjoy it.
“When we didn’t score in the first half, when we had four or five massive chances, you wonder if you will be punished for being sloppy.
“Their goalkeeper made some magnificent saves. I was not confident until the final whistle and the boys have to learn how to see out games.”
Solskjaer added he didn’t make it easy making so many changes – nine in total from Saturday – but they still had enough caps on the field.
Nemanja Matic and Marcus Rashford were the only two survivors from the side that beat Leicester City in the league on Saturday.
With an average age of 24 years and 145 days, it was the youngest United side fielded in a European match for seven years.
They started with three teenagers, Greenwood, Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes. It was the first time in an European game since 2009 when they began with three teens when Danny Welbeck, Federico Macheda and Rafael featured against Besiktas.
United had some of their big guns in reserve on the bench, the likes of Harry Maguire, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Ashley Young.
The Reds were desperately unlucky not to take a third minute lead when a 30-yard drive from Fred struck the crossbar.
Rashford, with a free kick, and Chong had decent goal attempts inside the opening six minutes.
United ought to have made the breakthrough in the 12th minute when Rashford, only three yards out, was denied by a brilliant save by Eric after Axel Tuanzebe had flicked on Gomes’ corner.
Greenwood saw a shot flash just wide of the upright and Rashford’s volley was well saved as United were doing everything but find the net in the opening quarter of the game when they had seven goal attempts to Astana’s one.
After an electrifying opening, the chances suddenly dried up for United, though they still enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, 77 per cent in the opening period in which they had 12 goals attempts to one from the visitors.
United could have taken the lead soon after the restart when Greenwood and Chong, both sliding in from a matter of yards, failed to convert a low left-wing cross from Marcos Rojo.
Greenwood and Rashford, with a free kick, also went close as a goal continued to elude United.
Brazilian went close for a second time as his free kick forced a super save from Eric.
Midway through the half, Solskjaer summoned two of his experienced players as Lingard and Mata replaced Chong and Gomes.
The elusive breakthrough finally came in the 73rd minute when a neat, passing move ended with Fred releasing Greenwood who wriggled free on the right before finding the net with an angled shot which went in through the legs of keeper Eric.
United made their last change with 12 minutes left when Rojo, excellent on his first appearance of the season, was replaced by Young at left back.
Lingard came close to doubling the lead when his drive was turned on to the upright by the fingertips of Eric.
It was a comfortable 1-0 victory for the Reds who were never able to relax because of their slender advantage.
One mistake could have handed United’s first-ever visitors from Kazakhstan a share of the spoils in a game played in front of a crowd of 50,783, the lowest for a European game since Old Trafford was redeveloped to its current capacity.