Behind the statue of Sir Matt Busby at Old Trafford a resplendent banner now reads, ‘As the Reds go marching on, on, on’ and glory may soon return to Manchester United.
Progression through to the quarter-finals was already assured prior to their final home match of a never-ending season that began almost a year ago to the day and the winning mentality was not compromised. United are still undefeated at Old Trafford since January 22, a time before Bruno Fernandes.
At one stage, this was in danger of rivalling United’s most infamous round-of-16 home performance in recent memory. Sevilla was far more significant and this was the polar opposite, with LASK unfussed about building on their brief lead. Yet Ole Gunnar Solskjaer maintained the integrity of the competition by introducing Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial, the matchwinner.
The Under-18 captain Teden Mengi eventually emerged and became the eighth academy graduate debutant for United in a single season, which last happened in 1952-53 – the campaign of Duncan Edwards, Bill Foulkes, and Dennis Viollet with United champions for the first time under Matt Busby.
Rather than immediately enliven the evening by introducing rookies and starting debutants, Solskjaer was too committed to the outfield squad players and few of them distinguished themselves at Norwich in June. James Garner and Mengi were benched and Ethan Laird in the stands but not the matchday squad. Tahith Chong bizarrely came on at left-back. Andreas Pereira was one of the first to warm up and come on, and actually showed eagerness. There were fireworks – let off outside the ground.
Solskjaer will have little choice but to recall almost all of the big-hitters for the quarter-final with Copenhagen in Cologne on Monday, bar David de Gea. Sergio Romero was alert upon resuming his Europa League duties and is one of a handful of back-ups worth their squad place, reaffirmed by an added time stop.
Jesse Lingard can at least boast of two goals in as many games, though his branded celebration at equalising drew short shrift from Juan Mata, intent on restarting the match swiftly. LASK led for two minutes and United restarted with greater alacrity than their Austrian guests.
The Copenhagen quarter-final will be the first game in 15 days for most of Solskjaer’s undroppables and he was clearly conscious of letting players become undercooked by introducing Pogba just past the hour and then Martial with the match deadlocked.
The Manchester press pack graced the Old Trafford pitch last year and had Solskjaer registered them to play United would have still had to book flights for Cologne. The 5-0 aggregate advantage was undermined by the presence of captain Harry Maguire, the only player who has started every United match since football’s hiatus ended and completed every minute in what was his 53rd start of a taxing season.
United have eight centre halves in their squad yet half are unavailable and the other – Mengi – got his first senior minutes against LASK. It is a growing issue amid the posturing over priority target Jadon Sancho in the transfer window, especially following a league campaign that Maguire started all 38 fixtures. Victor Lindelof missed only three of them.
The need for Sancho is so acute with quantity also reigning over quality in the attacking department, where United were impotent in the first-half. Daniel James, one-dimensional again, was switched to the right flank in the first-half and Lingard moved to the left to accommodate Mata in the playmaker role he seldom operates in. The United analysts in the press box sighed in exasperation at the laxness.
Lingard, Mata, and Ighalo lined up at Carrow Road in a rotated team in the FA Cup quarter-final when the lack of pace in the frontline prevented United from accelerating attacks. The number seven is vacant again with Inter Milan due to announce the permanent signing of Alexis Sanchez and so is the 11. United need to occupy both of them.
“Get your tempo up with your passing,” was the demand from Solskjaer and Maguire and McTominay were vocal in an attempt to maintain some competitiveness about the evening. Too many of United’s starters appeared resigned to their squad player status, content just with a matchday presence, and gave an air the manager had played them a hospital pass. Fred was visibly unimpressed at his removal.
Solskjaer had urged Lingard to come inside following his switch to the left and he positioned himself perfectly to receive Mata’s curved through ball to level in the 57th minute. Lingard’s newfound confidence is well timed with James’ form forlorn and Martial is the outright leading scorer.
The full-time whistle went and ‘Glory, glory Man United’ rang around the empty arena.