FC Astana 2 Manchester United 1
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's young Manchester United side suffered a 2-1 defeat in the Europa League on Thursday night after our hosts Astana turned the game on its head in the second half.
United's youngsters had performed valiantly in the opening 45 minutes and were deservedly ahead at half-time thanks to a fine finish from captain-for-the-night Jesse Lingard. But it was the hosts who were celebrating at full-time after netting two goals in seven crazy second-half minutes when United also had chances to double the advantage.
Solskjaer handed senior debuts to Ethan Laird, Di’Shon Bernard and Dylan Levitt from the start - and three more bows were made in the second half, by substitutes D'Mani Mellor, Largie Ramazani and Ethan Galbraith. A total of seven teenagers were in the starting XI, while the oldest player in the squad, Lee Grant, was given his first start in goal.
In front of Grant there was a welcome return to action for left-back Luke Shaw, who hadn’t featured since August due to injury. Lingard took the captain’s armband for the first time in his United career.
The hosts had completed their domestic season some three weeks earlier and while that may have given them plenty of time to prepare for this match, it was Ole’s youthful Reds who came firing out of the blocks. United were at it from the off, hungry for the ball and determined to attack, and there was some impressive link-up play all over the pitch. That was particularly evident early on between Mason Greenwood and Lingard and it was the latter who put the former through for a sight of goal on five minutes, only for Nenad Eric in the Astana goal to parry Greenwood’s shot away from danger.
It didn’t take long for the breakthrough to come with Lingard finding the net for the first time since January, with a fine finish into the bottom corner five minutes later.
Our skipper almost doubled his tally in the 20th minute when another nice move led to Laird cutting inside after a good run down the right. The full-back found Lingard in a similar position from where he scored, but this time the no.14 couldn’t keep his effort down.
Proceedings became a little more even as the half wore on with Lingard seeing a deflected effort bounce onto the roof of the net, Abzal Beysebekov stinging the palms of Grant and Greenwood forcing Eric into a save after a strong run forward.
Astana began the second half on the front foot; Ivan Maevski just missed the target after the ball ran loose following a free-kick for the hosts. United went straight up the other end with Shaw powering forward and finding Tahith Chong at the back post but with the goal gaping, the Netherlands Under-21 winger looped his shot over the bar. Seconds later, Astana drew level through Dmitri Shomko, who controlled the ball well before drilling a low effort into the far corner. Cue total hysteria inside the Astana Arena and frustration for the Reds, having conceded for the first time this season in the Europa League.
Astana really had their tails up now and with a raucous crowd behind them it didn’t take long before a second goal followed as the game was turned on its head. Rukavina sped down the right wing and saw his attempted cross deflected past Grant at the near post by the unlucky Bernard.
On 74 minutes it almost got worse when Astana broke forward after a United corner with the ball dropping to Runar Mar Sigurjonsson on the volley but thankfully the ball flew just wide.
While Ole’s young United team may have initially been a little shell-shocked at the turnaround, the Reds set about finding an equaliser and we couldn’t have gone must closer when Gomes saw an excellent free-kick tipped over by Eric before Astana’s inspired goalkeeper somehow parried away Greenwood’s close-range shot.
That proved to be the last clear-cut opportunities for the Reds who will have learnt many valuable lessons from the experience on and off the field in Kazakhstan. As to who finishes top of Group L, that will now be decided at Old Trafford when AZ Almaar visit in two weeks’ time.
Astana: Eric; Rukavina, Postnikov, Logvinenko, Shomko; Beysebekov, Maevski, Sigurjonsson, Rotariu; Khizhnichenko (Pertsukh 86), Murtazayev (Janga 90).
Subs not used: Mokin, Muzhikov, Zhakipbayev, Zhalmukan, Prokopenko.
Booked: Shomko, Logvinenko, Beysebekov
Goals: Shomko 55, Bernard own goal 62.
United: Grant; Laird, Tuanzebe, Bernard, Shaw; Garner (Ramazani 85), Levitt; Chong (Mellor 65), Lingard, Gomes (Galbraith 89); Greenwood.
Subs not used: Kovar, Mengi, Taylor, Puigmal.
Goal: Lingard 10.