Manchester United seldom plump for an unknown quantity when it comes to recruitment, so it was apposite Amad’s headed finish had shades of Javier Hernandez.
Hernandez, a frugal find by Sir Alex Ferguson in Mexico back in 2010, memorably finished at Stoke in 2010 to intensify his bond with United supporters. Although Amad was denied an audience in the Stretford End, his social media notifications will inform him of his growing popularity.
Bruno Fernandes’s perceptive pass was magisterial and it was enriched by the poise of Amad’s header over the gigantic Gianluigi Donnarumma just five minutes after his interval introduction.
This was the first-half of professional football the teenage Amad has completed. Like Marcus Rashford five years ago, an 18-year-old capitalised on an Anthony Martial withdrawal to make a goalscoring impact and perhaps Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be more amenable to turning to Amad in the future. United lacked his unpredictability at Crystal Palace and Chelsea in the last fortnight, when they left substitutions unused.
Yet unlike Rashford’s debut double against Midtjylland, Amad did not leave the pitch as the matchwinner. United conceded from the umpteenth set-piece this season, deep into added time. The cumbersome Nemanja Matic was lost by Simon Kjaer and Dean Henderson, faultless up until then, palmed the ball into the net when he should have diverted it over.
Milan merited their equaliser in another insipid display from United, for whom the international break cannot come soon enough. The trouble is they have three more fixtures and could be ejected from both cup competitions by then. Milan will relish the second leg, potentially with a fit Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the tip of their attacking arrow.
Amad, the £37m recruit from Atalanta in January, is United’s wildcard for the run-in. He embarked on a rigorous warm-up at the pause with one of the fitness coaches before receiving a briefing from United’s multi-lingual coach Martyn Pert. Whatever the message was, it was received. Pert looked curt at full-time as he mulled over the defensive dithering at another corner.
Martial, injured in the first-half, was not risked in the second and United started the second-half with a Europa League-centric attacking triumvirate of Amad, Mason Greenwood and Daniel James. That is not going to have West Ham quaking this weekend, or Leicester next week.
With Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani occupying medical beds at Carrington, Solskjaer had little choice but to err on the side of caution and hook Martial, moving Greenwood to centre forward. It was Amad who dislodged Milan’s catenaccio door-bolt.
The Ivorian was mobbed by his teammates, with compatriot Eric Bailly predictably delirious with his crowdsurfing celebration. Henderson hollered his best to Amad and he will not be short of congratulations online. Henderson may want to log out of his accounts.
Milan will have been aware of the right-footed winger from his devastating performances for the Atalanta academy. To their seasoned starters and journeymen, Amad was hardly as intimidating as Solskjaer was when he used to emerge from the bench.
It is just as well Amad entered to salvage the most underwhelming meeting between these two fallen giants that are gradually rising again. Without Mancunians clicking through the turnstiles or the Milanese choreographing their march from Sinclairs Oyster Bar in Cathedral Gates, this was a hollow occasion, compounded by the Thursday night slot and depleted teams.
United have been hamstrung by Paul Pogba’s thigh injury, with Solskjaer unwilling to trial a more innovative midfield pair than the options available. Donny van de Beek would be a solution but has faded into such an afterthought his manager seemed to forget he was on the bench recently.
Fernandes was so frustrated he resorted to an English invective and railed against the mediocrity with an assist from deep – the area usually occupied by Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay. Relocating Fernandes, scorer of 23 goals, is something Solskjaer is unprepared to consider, particularly as United are suddenly short of playmakers.
Milan’s XI was the weakest to assemble in their sixth tie at Old Trafford, an XI devoid of any glitterati or gravitas their colours are synonymous with. Paolo Maldini, besuited in Armani as he held court in the directors’ box, had more of an aura about him than any of the current players. Franck Kessie diverted eyes onto the pitch with a spectacular volleyed goal that was dubiously chalked off by the Video Assistant Referee in a first-half Milan dominated.
Harry Maguire, sensing United’s lethargy, cajoled his teammates and Dean Henderson, aggrieved at the casual defending that enabled Kessie to breach him, demanded ‘energy’. Nemanja Matic was rebuked for a heavy pass.
Maguire ordered the forwards to ‘stop giving the f—–g ball away’ and then ventured forward for some karma. He blocked a goalbound Alex Telles free-kick and inexplicably shinned the ball against Donnarumma’s upright from a yard out with the goal vacant. Maguire lingered by the post, dumbfounded at his failed finish, before skulking away, muttering, ‘f–k’. United supporters will have been shaking their heads at home.
The performance was so uninspiring it demanded an inspired substitution. Enter Amad, another goalscoring substitute, like Hernandez and his manager.