Manchester United qualify for Europa League knockout stages
Mason Greenwood scores as youthful front three rip Partizan Belgrade apart
Manchester United’s Mason Greenwood scores the opening goal against FK Partiza at Old Trafford. Photograph: Getty Images
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to see Manchester United playing on the front foot and creating chances and they qualified for the knockout stages of the Europa League by doing just that.
The second of two wins against Partizan Belgrade was achieved through the composed finishing of Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, though with just a little more composure they could have doubled the margin of victory.
As it was they scored two first-half goals for the first time in almost a year, kept the crowd entertained with some lively attacking football and back at the top of their group can now afford to be more relaxed about the games that remain against Astana and Alkmaar.
Solskjaer had suggested an early United goal could lead to a landslide and both sides had the ball in the net in the first five minutes, only for play to be brought back on both occasions due to correctly applied offside flags. The disallowed Partizan goal was the more borderline decision, and Harry Maguire will be grateful Umar Sadiq had strayed a couple of feet beyond the last defender as it was his misplaced pass in his own half that allowed Seydouba Soumah to set up the chance.
United should have scored a legitimate goal straight after that but when an Aaron Wan-Bissaka cross came through to Marcus Rashford at the far post he put his shot wide from the edge of the six-yard area with the whole goal at which to aim. When Rashford had another excellent opportunity a couple of minutes later after Juan Mata’s cutback set up a shot from close range he found Vladimir Stojkovic alert to the danger, the goalkeeper leaving his line early to smother the effort.
Rashford has just reached his half-century of goals for United at the precocious age of 22, and on another day he might have had three more inside the first 15 minutes here. His third opportunity came courtesy of another searching cross from Wan-Bissaka, one that again found him in space in the Partizan area but demanded a volley. Rashford lined up his target and took his time but still ended up blazing over the bar with the most difficult of his three chances.
Undeterred, Rashford could at least claim a large share of the credit for United’s opening goal midway through the first half. It was his incisive pass that split the visiting defence and found Mason Greenwood in an onside position, and the teenager neatly tricked what remained of the cover to open up a shooting angle before supplying a confident finish for his second goal in three games.
That was the start Solskjaer had been looking for and United duly obliged by scoring a quick second, the first time they have managed more than one goal at home since the 4-0 victory against Chelsea on the opening day of the season. It was a notable individual strike by Anthony Martial, whose penalty had settled the away fixture in Belgrade.
Seizing on a half-clearance much quicker than the ball-watching Strahinja Pavlovic, Martial exploded into the area and gracefully held off two more defensive challenges before neatly poking the ball beyond Stojkovic at the last moment. It was a moment of instinctive opportunism and Martial would have been rewarded with a second goal immediately afterwards but for chipping over the bar when all the hard work seemed to have been done.
Partizan did not change their shape or their attitude on going behind - they still kept plenty of men behind the ball, though even faced with a packed defence United kept creating chances. They could have been further ahead by the interval but Rashford saw another shot saved and Ashley Young fired narrowly over after bursting into the area from the left.
Fred opened the second half by giving Partizan a chance to get back into the game when he rejected a number of passing options in favour of giving the ball away to Sadiq in the middle of the United half, though what could have been a huge embarrassment was calmly defused by Maguire.
United responded by going upfield and going further in front through another fine goal, Young expertly laying off Mata’s diagonal cross for Rashford to score with a rising first-time shot. Rashford was withdrawn not too long after that, along with the influential midfield duo of Scott McTominay and Fred, as Solskjaer looked to conserve energy and resources for the league game against Brighton on Sunday. For the same reason the team that takes the field in Kazakhstan later this month is likely to be extremely fresh-faced and inexperienced, though on this evidence United can rely on their youngsters to acquit themselves well in Astana.
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