Manchester United finally find their goal touch to kill off Partizan Belgrade in Europa League
'Tonight was a little bit of a template of how we want to play', says manager Solskjaer after 3-0 victory at Old Trafford
Neil and Dave, two Manchester United fans who first went to a game in 1959 – and never stopped going – stood huddled against the elements in the shadow of the Stretford End before Thursday’s Europa League game against Partizan Belgrade.
It was a filthy Mancunian evening with the rain so sustained that flood warnings were issued.
The merits of the current United divide their own fans this season but the two supporters, who listed former forwards David Herd and George Best as the greatest players they’ve ever seen, were united in their view that the team desperately needs a centre forward. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men have struggled to find the net thus far.
After finding it four times in the opening league game against Chelsea, they went 12 matches without scoring more than one goal.
Then came three at Norwich where the forwards looked formidable. Marcus Rashford’s two at Chelsea last week encouraged too, but fans are concerned rather than carried away because of the team’s lack of firepower.
Romelu Lukaku, who scored 42 times in his two seasons at Old Trafford, is scoring again in Italy. Few were sad to see the Belgian leave, fewer still to see fellow forward Alexis Sanchez join him at Inter Milan.
It was a risk leaving United lighter up front, one which became a significant problem when Anthony Martial became injured. Not scoring more than one against Leicester is one thing, struggling to break down third tier Rochdale or Astana another.
It was into that grind that youngster Mason Greenwood was given a chance – which he took in style with a goals on his European debut against Astana and League cup debut against Rochdale.
Marcus Rashford is talented and exciting but he’s not yet consistently prolific and United’s goals dried up with fans pining for a Herd, Ruud Van Nistelrooy or young Wayne Rooney.
Concerns weren’t eased by the opening minutes against Partizan. The unmarked Rashford should have scored after six minutes but shot a metre wide. A few minutes later, Juan Mata tapped the ball to one side for the better placed Rashford to finish. Goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic smothered the ball.
Rashford then volleyed over after 14 minutes following a deep Aaron Wan Bissaka cross. Top forwards need to be clinical. However, the breakthrough would come from 18-year old Greenwood after 21 minutes when he slotted the ball in with a left foot shot in the opposite corner to where the keeper expected it.
United were dominant and, in the words of Partizan’s manager “on another level”, but were still profligate rather than prolific in front of goal.
Martial shot over after 26 minute and chipped over ten minutes later but in between he showed his class when he was too quick as he side-stepped past two Partizan defenders, leaving them and the goalkeeper on the soaked surface, before prodding the goal in. “The skill of the night,” said Solskjaer.
The best of United’s three goals from three strikers came four minutes into the second half when, from 15 yards, Rashford smashed a set up from Ashley Young into the top left corner of the Stretford End goal.
“I’m very pleased that Marcus scored with his left foot,” said Solskjaer. “He’ll need more goals with his left foot because he comes in that position quite often.
"He can go inside and outside so I’m very pleased with that. Marcus got in some good positions and made some great runs. He made some good passes too.”
Rashford was delighted with his fifth goal in seven home appearances this season, one more than he managed in 23 last season. He was deservedly applauded off when substituted. The fans sang about former striker Diego Forlan or former Red Star player Nemanja Vidic, but the goals gave the players a lift they and the crowd needed.
“I was very pleased with all three finishes,” said Solskjaer. “We felt we played a strong team which could create chances and we needed the players out there to take them. We should have scored more but the first one settled us down.
"Tonight was a little bit of a template of how we want to play but it’s the opposition who allow you to play. No disrespect to Partizan but they gave us spaces, especially after we scored the first goal.
"It was pleasing for me that we still went forward and needed the second and third because too many times we have been 1-0 up and haven’t got the second.”
The 2,000 travelling Partizan supporters who had to go through a visa process to be allowed into the United Kingdom were as noisy as they were in Belgrade two weeks ago.
The 62,955 crowd included local children who were issued with complimentary tickets. Watching United has often been a trying experience this season but three goals against the Serbians was enough to put them into the knockout stages of the competition they won in 2017.
United haven’t conceded a goal in their four Europa League games, but it was the lack of action at the other end that is the problem.
Partisan did not disgrace themselves in two games against the English side. And nor did United’s forwards once they’d got going. The two fans who’d watched since 1959 and seen many ups and downs could relax for at least one night.
Updated: November 8, 2019 09:29 AM