Manchester United 1 Athletic Club 1
Manchester United’s pre-season schedule ended with late cheer at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, as Facundo Pellistri fired home an equaliser for the Reds with the final kick of the game against Athletic Club in a friendly encounter that certainly had a competitive edge.
Our La Liga opponents held a first-half lead courtesy of Nico Williams’s neat finish, but Erik ten Hag’s side eventually got the goal we deserved as Pellistri finished well from Harry Maguire's headed knock-down, with Athletic Club having spent the final 25 minutes of the contest with 10 men, following Aitor Paredes’s dismissal for a professional foul.
With United facing Lens at Old Trafford little over 24 hours earlier, a much-changed starting XI was always likely, although there was no shortage of quality and experience on the field, with Tom Heaton, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Victor Lindelof, Maguire, Christian Eriksen, Donny van de Beek and Jadon Sancho lining up for the Reds alongside talented youngsters Alvaro Fernandez, Pellistri, Daniel Gore and Omari Forson, all of whom would have wanted to impress the manager ahead the big Premier League kick-off in just eight days’ time.
As for the visitors from the Basque County, who begin their league campaign on Saturday, Ernesto Valverde’s side included summer arrival Inigo Ruiz de Galarreta in midfield, while there was a very familiar midfielder on the bench in former Red Ander Herrera.
It had been a blustery, rainy Sunday in the Irish capital on bank holiday weekend here, with torrential rain falling an hour before the game. Thankfully, the skies cleared up nicely in time for kick-off, and the crowd were in fine voice for what was our first game in the country since 2017, when the Reds beat Sampdoria at the same stadium.
FIRST HALF – SANCHO CENTRAL TO ATTACKING THREAT
A lively start for the Reds led to a big chance inside the first three minutes, as Pellistri put Sancho clean through, only for keeper Unai Simon to deny our no.25 a certain goal with an outstretched leg.
Sancho was playing with confidence in a central attacking role, shimmying past opponents with regularity. Pellistri and van de Beek were also displaying quick feet, moving the ball on with speed in the attacking third as the Reds sought an early breakthrough, while Gore and Forson also showed some neat touches.
At the other end, Inaki Williams tested Heaton with two efforts – one with his head, one with his foot – but the United skipper was comfortable on each occasion. Both sides had penalty appeals moments later – Pellistri for United following a strong challenge, before Nico Williams seemed to have won a spot-kick for Athletic Club, but thankfully Fernandez’s foul was deemed to be just outside the area by referee Neil Doyle.
Our opponents would soon have the lead, however. After dispossessing Maguire midway into the United half, the Lions worked the ball through to the onrushing Nico Williams, who poked it beyond Heaton - the goalie got a hand to it - and into the net.
A goal down, the Reds continued to boss possession with some tidy approach play inside the opposition half – Sancho and Pellistri being at the heart of much of it – but without really testing Simon in the Athletic Club goal ahead of the half-time whistle, by which time the rain was falling heavily once again at the Aviva Stadium.
SECOND HALF – REDS KEEP BATTLING TO THE END
Each team made one change at the break – Hannibal replacing van de Beek for United; Asier Villalibre coming on for Nico Williams for Athletic Club.
It was Eriksen who had the first second-half sighter for Ten Hag’s side, shooting just wide of Simon’s goal, while in the stands there was plenty of appreciation for Jonny Evans as he warmed up ahead of his introduction just after the hour mark – the defender replacing Fernandez, while 19-year-old striker Joe Hugill came on for Sancho up top.
The game had lost some intensity at that stage, and it was Hannibal who provided the spark the contest needed, the Tunisia international’s dangerous surge forward forcing Paredes to wrestle him to the floor. Referee Neil Doyle was swift to raise the red card for a professional foul. Eriksen couldn’t quite find the target with the resulting free-kick, but the Reds seemed buoyed.
Hannibal shot just over from Wan-Bissaka’s cross, before Wan-Bissaka again found space in a good area, but couldn’t quite direct the ball back across goal into the six-yard box. Galarreta offered a rare second-half threat on Heaton’s goal, while Hugill couldn’t quite judge the flight of the ball as it bounced into the Athletic Club area. Herrera was among those to join the action for Valverde’s side soon after – much like Evans, to loud applause from the fans – as those in blue looked to tighten things up.
A flurry of yellow cards – one for Evans, two for our opponents – threatened to break up the momentum of play, but United continued to probe. Hannibal took aim from distance only to see his shot charged down, and, after Noam Emeran had replaced Gore, the Reds remained threatening. Forson was forced down as he pushed through midfield, Maguire got himself into a good attacking position on the left, only for the ball to be cleared, and Evans’s looped header towards goal was deflected to safety.
Despite dominating the final stages, it looked like that one big chance wouldn’t fall for the Reds, but into the two minutes of injury-time, Wan-Bissaka’s floating ball into the box was well won by a leaping Maguire, allowing Pellistri the time to let the ball bounce before shooting low beyond Simon and into the net.
It made for an uplifting end to pre-season for the Reds, as well as the vast majority of the 50,238 fans inside the stadium, with the contest providing Ten Hag with more food for thought when assessing his options for the Premier League visit of Wolves to Old Trafford on Monday week.
United: Heaton (c); Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Lindelof, Fernandez (Evans 64); Gore (Emeran 80), Eriksen; Pellistri, Van de Beek (Hannibal 46), Forson; Sancho (Hugill 64).
Subs not used: Kovar, Wooster, Jurado, Collyer.
Goal: Pellistri 90+3
Athletic Club: Simon; De Marcos, Vivian, Paredes, Lekue (Nolaskoain 75); Vesga, Ruiz de Galarreta (Herrera 75); N. Williams (Villalibre 46), Sancet (Gomez 56), Muniain (c, Imanol 75); I. Williams.
Subs not used: Agirrezabala, Prados, Guruzeta, Marton, Garcia, Adu Ares.
Goal: N. Williams 29
Booked: Lekue, Vivian, Imanol
Sent off: Paredes