Mason Greenwood opened his Manchester United account in style as the 17-year-old secured Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men an unconvincing win against Astana in their Europa League opener.
Back in the competition for the first time since lifting the trophy two years ago, the Reds’ gruelling road to Gdansk got off to a surprisingly uncomfortable start against the perennial Kazakhstan champions.
An embarrassing European result was looming large in front of an increasingly frustrated Old Trafford crowd, only for teenager Greenwood to produce a moment of magic and secure a 1-0 win.
Solskjaer will be relieved to have got Group L off to a winning start, although will surely be alarmed by the way his side’s performance dropped off after Fred hit the woodwork and Marcus Rashford saw early efforts denied.
Perhaps the disjointed display should not come as a surprise given teenagers Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes and Greenwood were all handed starting roles as United named their youngest European line-up since 2012.
The latter would eventually save the day – and show just why Solskjaer called him one of the best finishers he had seen – by confidently making space and smashing home in front of the Stretford End, becoming the first player born this millennium to score for United.
Few could have foreseen such a struggle given the way Solskjaer’s much-changed side started the match.
Fred rattled the woodwork 141 seconds into his first start in 148 days and Rashford soon went close with a deflected free-kick, with the forward then seeing a close-range shot stopped by Astana goalkeeper Nenad Eric.
The forward’s exquisite flick into the path of Greenwood saw the teenager go a whisker away with a fizzing strike and it looked a matter of when rather than if United would score.
After Phil Jones got back to deny Roman Murtazayev and atone for his own error, United kicked on and Astana skipper Eric did well to thwart Rashford again after he was put in by Marcos Rojo midway through the first half.
United’s intensity dropped off for the remainder of the opening period as they begun to run out of ideas, with Astana not good enough to punish the hosts’ shaky high line. Rashford was visibly frustrated when Eric denied his latest attempt.
Solskjaer’s men returned from the break strongly. Gomes, making his first start for the club, followed an excellent turn on the edge of the box with pass out to Rojo, whose low cross just evaded Greenwood and Chong.
A low Greenwood effort deflected just wide before Rashford and Fred had free-kick attempts as United huffed and puffed.
But United’s inability to turn their superior possession and shot count into a goal was giving Astana hope and Marin Tomasov’s cross nearly dropped for Dorin Rotariu to turn home at the far post.
The 230 travelling fans were beginning to believe as United toiled, only for their blushes to be saved by teenager Greenwood.
The 17-year-old showed great feet and an impressive eye for goal when wriggling free in the 73rd minute to send a low drive through Eric’s legs as Old Trafford went wild.
It was quite the moment for Greenwood and Rojo went close to adding to that effort with a fizzing strike, before substitute Jesse Lingard saw an attempt tipped onto the post with Diogo Dalot unable to capitalise on the rebound.
Astana pushed for a shock leveller but United held firm on a surprisingly tough night that will give Solskjaer plenty to think about.