Under-23s luckless in defeat to Saints
Manchester United's Under-23s were beaten 1-0 by Southampton at Leigh Sports Village in Premier League 2, despite dominating much of the match.
Jonathan Afolabi proved the matchwinner with his goal just past the half-hour mark but United deserved far more from the encounter, with Mason Greenwood and Di'Shon Bernard agonisingly close to grabbing what would have been a deserved equaliser in injury time.
Nonetheless, the positives will still have outweighed any negatives on the night for the Reds, who were up against a side determined to defend in numbers and professionally try to see the match out in a fashion that mirrors so many clashes at a higher level. The narrow win takes the South Coast side to the top of the table.
There were seven changes to the XI from the fine win over Paris Saint-Germain in the Premier League International Cup, reflecting the view of the Academy that there should be a shift in personnel now the transfer window has closed. Regular members of the side were allowed to go on loan to further their education, while Ro-Shaun Williams departed on a permanent basis to Shrewsbury Town.
It means some of the Under-18s squad will be promoted in the coming weeks and defenders Brandon Williams and Bernard both made their debuts at this level, while Dylan Levitt started for the first time in a key midfield role. Prolific striker Greenwood was handed a place in attack as coach Ricky Sbragia's side was bursting with flair and enthusiasm.
Performing in freezing conditions at Leigh Sports Village against more mature and powerful opponents supplied an ideal test for United's youngsters.
United made a flying start and attacked from all angles with fluid movement and real spark. Tahith Chong was fouled by Christophe Klarer on the very edge of the box in the sixth minute but could only find the wall with the free-kick and the Dutchman then fired a glorious opening over the top after a thrilling move involving Levitt and Greenwood. Another incisive bit of interplay, as Angel Gomes did well to keep the ball alive, again threatened the visiting goal.
Greenwood collected the ball on the left, drifting inside to test Jack Rose with a fierce drive, and Nishan Burkart was inches away from getting onto the rebound. James Garner and Levitt had long-range shots, while Greenwood let fly following a one-two with Chong, only for the effort to go straight at a grateful Rose.
Southampton finally started to pose problems themselves, with Jake Vokins's attempt on the break deflecting through to Matej Kovar but then they took the lead on 32 minutes. Vokins crossed from the left and Afolabi outmuscled Bernard to swivel and bury a slick finish into the corner of the net.
It was a blow for the Reds and Afolabi forced a save out of Kovar as United lost our rhythm for a spell. It was recovered before the break but Garner belted a shot wide after some more attacking work by Sbragia's team.
The second half got off to a subdued start with the Saints willing to sit deep to protect their lead. Sbragia opted to replace Nishan Burkart with Josh Bohui and an effort on goal soon followed, with Bernard's skidding shot helped behind by keeper Rose.
Captain Gomes scooped a chip too high from a Levitt pass, Bohui bent off target after lining it up nicely and Williams, always willing to join the attack, was unable to pick out Gomes in the danger area as the opportunities came in a real flood. The best opening fell to Bohui in the 79th minute but he could not keep his header down from an inviting cross by Gomes.
Tanner fired in a low ball that was expertly held by Rose as time began to run out for the hosts. However, there were two near-misses as the clock ticked down with Greenwood turning sharply inside the box to force the save of the night out of Rose and the rebound struck Luca Ercolani and bounced unluckily away from goal. Bernard then dived to meet a Chong centre but powered it over the bar with the final chance.
Garner, who was excellent in midfield, made one saving challenge to repel a Saints break but the visitors were largely content to see things out, even making substitution deep into stoppage time, to aid their bid to reach the Premier League 2 summit.
United: Kovar; Tanner, Ercolani, Bernard, B. Williams; Levitt, Garner, Gomes (c); Chong, Greenwood, Burkart (Bohui 59).
Substitutes not used: Fojticek, Olosunde, Barlow, Traore.
Scorer: Afolabi 32.
The Under-23s are away to Stoke City on Monday 18 February. As the first team are now in Emirates FA Cup action on the same night at Chelsea, we will only be showing highlights on MUTV.