Greenwood, fellow Man United academy grads using Europa League to launch senior careers


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MANCHESTER, England — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done the impossible: gotten Manchester United fans excited about the Europa League.

By serving notice that he intends to use this competition to blood the latest batch of youngsters coming through Carrington, the Norwegian has made these games must watch for supporters keen for a glimpse into the future. Make no mistake, Solskjaer does not want to be playing on Thursday nights, but he is at least prepared to make the most of the opportunity it presents.

Against FC Astana of Kazakhstan, that meant full debuts for 19-year-olds Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong. Mason Greenwood, 17, and Marcus Rashford, 21, also started in a front four made up entirely of academy graduates with an average age of 19. Another academy product, 21-year-old Axel Tuanzebe, started at centre-back.

It wasn’t quite Sir Alex Ferguson throwing in the Class of ’92 at Aston Villa in 1995, but it wasn’t far off. That game ended in a 3-1 defeat at Villa Park but this 1-0 win, narrow as it was, was a far more promising start.

It could have been 4-0 after 20 minutes.

Fred, making his first start in 148 days, hit the bar from 30 yards after just three minutes. Rashford forced Astana goalkeeper Nenad Eric into two point-blank saves and Greenwood flashed a fierce left-footed drive just past the far post.

The visitors had their moments, but more often than not Tuanzebe was there to sweep up the danger with an elegance that would have reminded some inside Old Trafford of Rio Ferdinand. Tuanzebe starred for Aston Villa on loan last season as they won promotion to the Premier League, and he would have been welcomed back in the summer had Solskjaer not made a point of keeping him in Manchester.

Chris Smalling — a title winner and capped 31 times by England — has been allowed to join Roma on loan in order to give Tuanzebe more opportunities. Comfortable on the ball, commanding in the air and dangerous from set pieces, he took his chance here.

He has work to do to remove one of Harry Maguire or Victor Lindelof from Solskjaer’s first-choice XI, but he is not far away. Lindelof, in particular, cannot afford many more mistakes like the ones that cost goals against Crystal Palace and Southampton, and that is exactly the way Solskjaer will want it. Young players knocking on the door, keeping the senior stars on their toes.

Gomes was also impressive.

United’s fans chanted “Borat, Borat give us a song” at the visiting support, but Astana are no joke. They racked up eight points in the Europa League group stage last season and arrived at Old Trafford having lost just one of their past six European trips.

Still, they struggled to cope with Gomes, who found pockets of space behind Rashford. There one second and gone the next, picking up the ball and laying it off, he was United’s creative hub. Early in the second half he turned so sharply inside the box that two yellow shirts were almost sent back to Kazakhstan. His pass found Marcos Rojo but the Argentinian’s cross evaded both Greenwood and Chong.

In his programme notes before the game, Solskjaer assured supporters that the Europa League “is a competition we want to win this season,” and midway through the second half he showed it, throwing on the experience of Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard for Gomes and Chong. The United manager faces a delicate balancing act in the Europa League this season: providing enough chances for his young players while also trying to win a trophy that leads back into the Champions League.

Fittingly, though, it was a youngster who ensured any potential embarrassment was avoided.

Greenwood jinked past Dorin Rotariu on the right and slid his shot underneath Eric for his first senior goal. He has already got a song — “Mason Greenwood’s dynamite, he scores them with his left foot and scores them with his right” — and this was the perfect time for another chorus.

Of all the young players the club believe have a chance of making the grade, they are most excited about Greenwood, now the youngest player to score for United in Europe. Still only 17 but with technical ability that allows him to take penalties and corners with both feet, he is the one to watch. Solskjaer was so impressed with the teenager during the summer tour that he allowed Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez to leave for Inter Milan without signing replacements.

Rashford launched his United career in the Europa League with two goals against FC Midtjylland three-and-a-half years ago, and he used the platform to become one of the best young players in the world. Solskjaer has given the latest group off the conveyor belt the chance to do the same.

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