LESSONS TO LEARN FOR REDS
The result has to go down as a disappointment for Solskjaer, irrespective of the youthful squad
SIR Matt Busby’s ‘if they’re good enough, they’re old enough’ quote was not as pertinent here in Nur-Sultan as Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in Magnum Force: “How the hell’s a man supposed to get experience if nobody gives him a chance?”
Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong, both 19, did not travel to Belgrade to face Partizan last month and were back in the first-team fold for the first time since October 6 amid uncertainty over their futures.
They each have seven months left on their contracts with the Reds and both struggled to exert pressure on the older attackers back in Manchester.
Chong somehow scooped the ball over the bar with the goal gaping and was consoled by Jesse Lingard, only seconds later Dmitri Shomko arrowed in the equaliser. Then Astana went ahead.
That was when the impetuousness of the United youngsters started to surface. Mason Greenwood despaired at a loose James Garner pass and the lack of seniority began to show.
Axel Tuanzebe tried to reassure the debutant Dishon Bernard after he had put through his own net. Bernard looked like he was about to break into tears and it would be callous to pin the defeat on his rookie mistake.
Bernard held his head aloft to approach and applaud the travelling supporters at full-time and received a pat on the head from Solskjaer, who offered some reassuring words. The 19-year-old will return to Manchester more resolute.
Chong was the first to be hooked for the 19-year-old D’mani Mellor and if the Dutchman chooses to run down his contract, United are unlikely to rue his loss in the same way as they did with Paul Pogba in 2012.
Gomes endeavoured to spare Bernard, forcing a fine save from Nenad Eric and teeing up Mason Greenwood to test the goalkeeper again.
Astana were one of three pointless teams out of the 48 Europa League group participants at kick-off and had shipped 14 goals.
The result has to go down as a disappointment for Solskjaer, irrespective of the youthful squad and qualification for the knockouts already assured. United’s unbeaten Europa League streak ends at 15.
This was a chance for the young and old(ish) in a matchday 18 whose squad numbers added up to 768. The average age of 22 years and 26 days was skewed by 36-year-old full debutant Lee Grant in goal.
Gary Neville refused to analyse the ‘mid-table’ midfield of Andreas Pereira and Fred at the weekend and would have been more forthcoming were he in Kazakhstan to witness the axis of Garner and Dylan Levitt.
Levitt, 19, and Garner, 18, went to the same United development centre, trained together at the Littleton Road breeding ground for juniors and arrived at the Carrington training complex simultaneously. Their understanding was a clear positive in the Astana Arena.
Wales international Levitt’s touch and movement were usually in one motion – a certain sign of a proper player. Garner came through from the fervent Partizan Belgrade atmosphere on his maiden start last month and was composed in front of a more amiable crowd.
The United officials will have to temper their enthusiasm at the prospect of the pair offsetting the inevitable departures of Nemanja Matic and Pogba in the future. The callowness of the Reds side was exposed in the second half.
The 4,000th consecutive match with a
homegrown player looms. Nine of the XI against Astana were academy-bred and three more - Mellor, Largie Ramazani and Ethan Galbraith - debuted off the bench.
Ed Woodward already has some highlights for his next investors’ call, however hollow they are in defeat.
It was -16 outside the stadium and Bovril would have been the order had the referee called for a drinks break.
The wintry weather made the Astana Arena an apt setting for United supporters to commence their seasonal rendition of ‘Five Cantonas.’ There were a remarkable number in the south-east pocket, decorated by tricolour banners, some paying paean to Busby. Jesse Lingard’s annus horribilis suggests he is playing for his future and he ended a 10-month goalscoring drought whilst wearing the captain’s armband.
The precise strike was reminiscent of the Lingard of Solskjaer’s honeymoon period and the Reds boss’ premature pre-match claim Lingard was ‘coming back into his own’ after a purposeful 45 minutes in Sheffield now appears prescient.
Lingard justified his rank in
Astana should have been obliging opponents for the Reds rookies and regulars looking for a pick-me-up.
Lingard is maybe the only starter who should expect to retain his place against Aston Villa on Sunday, partly by virtue of Andreas Pereira’s struggles at Bramall Lane.
Tuanzebe and Luke Shaw will likely have to bide their time a little longer. Tuanzebe was the more natural skipper, chipping away at debutant Bernard and passing on the message from Solskjaer.
United have nine games in December, starting with Villa, and the return to fitness of Tuanzebe and Shaw are timely.
Shaw should have assisted Chong at 1-0 and within a minute Shomko levelled before Bernard deflected an Antonio Rukavina cross in off the woodwork.
Jesse Lingard celebrates his goal which gave the Reds the lead in Kazakhstan
D’Mani Mellor and, right, Dylan Levitt in action for United