|Photo from UEFA via Getty Images|
Amidst the doom and gloom caused by the rapidly spreading pandemic of the Coronavirus, Manchester United gave their fans something to cheer about in a five-star, 5-0 dismantling of Austrian LASK in the Round of 16 Europa League first leg.
The Raiffeisen Arena, the European home of the Austrian league leaders, was a ghost town on Thursday. UEFA was forced to take steps in order to protect the players and fans from the viral disease — and as a result — some games were postponed and others were forced to take place ‘behind closed doors.’
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made five changes from the derby win on the weekend with the likes of Anthony Martial and Aaron Wan-Bissaka staying behind in Manchester to heal some knocks ahead of an important league game against Spurs on the weekend. Now we know that game may not be played. The Reds were also without Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, with the latter ever so close to a return to first-team football.
LASK were not only without their fans but the Austrian league leaders also had to deal with the absence of two center-backs and a starting wide man Thomas Goiginger.
Romero, Williams, Bailly, Maguire (c), Shaw; McTominay, Fred, Fernandes; James, Ighalo, Mata
Schlager, Ramsebner, Trauner (c), Ranftl; Reiter, Holland, Michorl, Renner; Tetteh, Klauss, Frieser
It was odd to say the least. You can only imagine how weird it must have been for the players. United, so used to either stepping out in front of 75 thousand roaring fans at Old Trafford or a faithful brigade of away followers, this time had to cheer themselves on towards victory. For LASK, their home advantage in the clubs most historic fixture to date was essentially erased.
Whether that was the reason for LASK not really showing up on the pitch we will never know. But one thing is for certain, a red hot United side, slightly rotated following the derby day triumph last weekend, continued on their rampant ways. Some of the football on display was very cute.
The offensive patterns were flowing for the Reds. Ever since the arrival of Bruno Fernandes, United have not lacked in the creation department. They got their teeth back. They are poised to score goals — to kill teams off. And that was once again on show as the Reds notched a back-to-back 5-0 European victory.
This kind of a game has proved to be a steep mountain to climb for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men in the recent past. But Thursday’s events were nowhere near that. At times it almost felt like United were never out of first gear. It was all cruise control on the smooth Austrian motorway.
The floodgates were opened by loanee Odion Ighalo who is looking ever closer to solidifying himself as a cult hero on the red side of Manchester. His hold up play and sharpness in front of goal has been impressive in his spell at the club so far and he showed a bit more of his offensive repertoire again last night.
A beautiful slice from the outside of Fernandes’ boot landed at the feet of Ighalo, with the ball once again sticking to the Nigerian’s boots like velcro. A couple of turns left and right with the ball in mid air and a venomous strike with his left foot saw the ball nestle in the back of the net after kissing the underside of the crossbar. Poetic stuff. A really well taken goal.
The Nigerian striker is doing exactly what everyone had hoped he would following his arrival. He’s stepping up with every chance he gets, giving the team a completely different option as a physical No. 9, and chipping in with some important goals.
He also notched up an assists for United’s second, slotting in a marauding Dan James down the left-hand side before the Welshman cut inside and arrowed a right footed effort into the bottom corner. His fourth goal for the club and the first since the end of August. A well taken strike to end his drought in a crucial part of the season.
The tie was pretty much all but wrapped up then, but United were not done. The Reds were having fun. Slick, fast passing exchanges produced goal number three as Juan Mata played a nice one-two with Fred, with the latter beautifully finding the Spaniards run towards the area, setting up a clinical finish.
United added a fourth in stoppage time — made in the academy. Another one-two, this time between Mason Greenwood and Tahith Chong, saw the 18-year-old marksman slotted in down the left before unleashing a sharp left-footed strike, off both posts and in. All he needed was 15-minutes to notch his 12th goal in all competitions this season. What an output. What a talent.
The last goal was opportunistic, but showed just how confident and in-form this team is right now. A rare striker on target from Andreas Pereira as of late saw the LASK keeper spill the ball into his own net following a quickly taken set-piece by the Reds to put the tie to bed and give some players much needed confidence boosts.
As aforementioned, this kind of a game has too often been a banana skin for United in the past. And by putting LASK away so comfortably and in such impressive fashion, Solskjaer’s side showed further evidence of their evolution.
Nobody knows at this point if this was the last game we will see United play this season, but if it was, it was a nice note to end on. Showing the fruits of the team’s and coaching staff’s hard work and a ton of promise to take going forward.
Until next time, stay safe out there, Reds!
Sergio Romero: 8/10
Didn’t have to make a save. Another clean sheet to add to his tally nonetheless. The defense always looks calm with him behind them.
Brandon Williams: 8/10
A very good shift from the 19-year-old on the opposite flank. Assured, composed, agile going forward. Gave the Reds a good outlet down the right hand side.
Eric Bailly: 8.5/10
It’s so good to see the Ivorian put a run of games together. He is such a gifted center back and long may that run continue. Another impressive showing on and off the ball. Also blocked a dangerous and only effort LASK had on goal.
Harry Maguire: 8/10
Captain. He’s showing that armband is well deserved to be on his arm with every game. So assured and a true leader of men. Another solid display.
Luke Shaw: 8.5/10
He is flying at the moment. Reminiscent of the player he was during Van Gaal’s first season in charge before the horrible injury against PSV. Confident on the ball and a threat on the overlap.
Scott McTominay: 8/10
Probably the Scot’s best game since coming back from injury. He was truly back to his old commanding self on Thursday. Sharp on the ball and with his passing, commanding the troops from midfield.
The little Brazilian’s great run of form continues. What he brings to United’s midfield is priceless. The energy and commitment with which he plays in every game is crucial. His passing has also come leaps and bounds since the earlier days as can be seen in his assist for Juan Mata’s goal.
Juan Mata: 8/10
A very solid display from “El Mago.” We saw one of those good Juan Mata days. Cool and confident on the ball, picking out passes in between the lines and linking up with Fernandes very well. A well taken goal, too.
Bruno Fernandes: 8.5/10
It’s not a United game anymore without a Bruno goal contribution. An excellent assist for Ighalo’s opener and a ton of other good things done all over the pitch throughout the game for the Portuguese Magnifico. You can tell by watching his body language how much he demands of himself in every game and you can’t help but feel that he’s only going to get even better.
Daniel James: 8.5/10
A good performance on the back of a solid outing in the derby for the Welshman. Finally got his goal, too. He looks reenergized. Poised in his dribbling and a little more calculated in his decision making on Thursday.
Odion Ighalo: 9/10
Excellent. He’s becoming United’s Mr. Reliable up front. Great hold up and interplay in the final third. A beautifully taken goal and a nice assist for James’ goal. The Nigerian is becoming a valuable asset and a solid option for United. Don’t be surprised if he gets at least a one-year deal in the summer if he carries on like this.
Tahith Chong: 7/10
A nice little cameo from the Dutchman after penning a new deal at the club. His runs seem a little headless at times, but his talent is evident. He produced a perfectly weighted through ball to set up Greenwood’s goal.
He wasn’t on the field long enough to make a massive impact, and the game was all but done too, but it was good to see United’s No. 15 get on the scoresheet with a nice distance strike. Hopefully that’ll be a confidence booster for him.
Mason Greenwood: 8/10
United’s 18-year-old starlet only had 15-minutes on the pitch — and that was more than enough. We really have a star on our hands. Great awareness in the build up to his goal to hold up the ball inside his own half before finding Chong and setting off on the run down the flank. A cool finish once he got it back. It seems like Solskjaer has been resting him a bit in the last couple of games, so it was good to see Mason back on the scoresheet.