Manchester United reached the last 32 of the Europa League in convincing fashion last night, a competition which is taking on increasing importance for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in what has been a this frustrating ly average campaign.
Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial, and Marcus Rashford — the young triumvirate around whom the manager appears to be pinning so much hope — ensured this was a routine victory, although in this new era of United mediocrity, little is routine any more.
Solskjaer seemed to acknowledge that fact in selecting his starting line-up — one much stronger than those in the previous group games — in a bid to ensure safe passage in a competition which everyone, including the manager himself, now clearly acknowledges offers United their only realistic hope of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
The United manager had sent that strong, if still young, team out with that very Mancunian of expressions ringing in their ears — “fill your boots”. And, after weeks of largely uninspired play in the opposition half, United finally paid attention to his pleas and looked an uncharacteristically potent attacking force— so much so that for the first time since January 19, United scored two first-half goals at Old Trafford.
Greenwood and Martial snagged those, although two other factors had to be taken into account — the low quality of the opposition and the fact that, despite the two successes, United missed a hatful of chances. Thank goodness for Greenwood, who is turning into a rare bright point in a largely underwhelming season for the Reds, and scored his second goal of the Europa League — two-thirds of United’s output in the competition to that point — after 21 minutes.
Fred and Scott McTominay launched an attack, Rashford took it on and played a ball into the area for the 18-year-old, who finished emphatically past Slobodan Urosevic.
Greenwood it was who started the action that led to United’s second, after 32 minutes, when he charged down an attempted clearance from Urosevic and set up Martial for a marauding run into the area.
The Frenchman stayed ahead of one attempted challenge, skipped past two more with sublime skill before beating the on-rushing Vladimir Stojkovic with consummate ease.
Four minutes into the second half and United, scorers of six goals in their last six home games, were three-up, as Rashford was rewarded for his perseverance.
Juan Mata’s long, floating pass into the area was laid off intelligently by Ashley Young and the England striker hit a first-time, left-foot finish into the roof of the Partizan net from 15 yards. For the first time since the opening-day four-goal win over Chelsea, Solskjaer had seen his side score more than a solitary goal in a home match.
Advancement secured, it could — and indeed should — have been the start of an even more comfortable evening for Solskjaer’s side with a clever free kick from Young flying over the wall and into the side-netting moments after the third goal.
Rashford was denied, not for the first time on the evening, by Stojkovic. Fred, enjoying one of his better United outings, also saw an excellent dead-ball strike tipped over by the Partizan keeper.
Those misses continued a pattern that had been established almost directly from kick-off, with Rashford missing a straightforward opening, from no more than eight yards out, after six minutes, shooting straight at the keeper from close range a couple of moments later and then volleying over rashly from Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s 15th-minute cross.
At that stage, the evening was taking on a depressingly familiar air, with long periods of United pressure and chances, but with a lack of composure and confidence in front of goal, Martial doing the same when clearing the bar with the goal at his mercy just after he claimed his side’s second.
Those problems had led Solskjaer to hark back to his own halcyon playing days, when United would sweep sides off the pitch at Old Trafford through their sheer force of will and ruthless efficiency in front of goal.
This was not one of those occasions — such performances seem like such a long time ago these days — but at least it was effective and professional, even if it came with the slightly worrying addition of McTominay limping out of the action 15 minutes from time, having gone down awkwardly in a challenge.
MAN UNITED (4-2-3-1): Romero 6; Wan-Bissaka 7, Maguire 7, Rojo 6, Young 7; McTominay 7 (Lingard 75, 6), Fred 7 (Garner 63, 6); Greenwood 8, Mata 7, Rashford 7 (Pereira 67, 6); Martial 9.
PARTIZAN: Stojkovic 6; Miletic 6, Ostojic 6, Pavlovic 6, Urosevic 5; Natcho 6 (Tosic 60, 6), Zdjelar 5, Scekic 6, Asano 5 (F Stevanovic 70, 5); Soumah 5, Sadiq 5 (Ivanovic 85).
Referee: M Gestranius 7