anchester United kick off their Europa League campaign on Thursday night, as the Red Devils will host FC Astana at Old Trafford. It might not be the European competition fans wanted the club to be in, but there’s plenty of good that can come from a deep run in the tournament. United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will aim to start off on the right foot, as winning the Europa League might just be Manchester’s best chance of qualifying for next year's Champions League.
United were successful in their return from the international break this past weekend, scraping past Leicester City 1-0 at Old Trafford.
The Foxes were the much better team to start the contest, however. James Maddison and Ben Chilwell both carved out early chances, but David De Gea was able to make the save on each occasion.
The moment of the match up came in the eighth minute when United were awarded a penalty. Marcus Rashford was the first to react to a loose ball in the area, getting to it before being taken out by Caglar Söyüncü. The ref had no other choice than to point to the spot, and Rashford stepped up to confidently convert the resulting penalty.
Not much happened afterwards, as both teams sort of cancelled each other out. Harry Maguire was immense throughout, putting on a defensive masterclass against his former cub.
Ultimately, United were able to hold onto the lead, securing the win and crucial three points against tough opposition.
Astana are much deeper into their domestic campaign, having already played 24 games in the Kazakhstan Premier League.
They find themselves in a tense title race, and currently sit in third place, only five points off of league leading Tobol Kostanay. However, Astana do have two games in hand over their rivals, and are in stellar form coming down the stretch.
Their most recent victory came against Shakhter Karagandy. Going down 1-0, Astana staged a second half comeback. They equalized through Marin Tomasov before an own goal from Milos Vidovic gave them the lead, bringing them three points closer to the top of the table.
The result made it six wins out of their last seven in all competitions, meaning Astana will be in high spirits when they come to Old Trafford.
Last time out
This match-up is set to be a historical one, as Thursday will be the first time these two sides have ever faced off against one another.
Considering it’s a game of lesser significance, do not expect United to risk any players who are not 100% healthy.
They’ve been bitten by the injury bug as of late, as Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard both got hurt right before the international break, joining Luke Shaw, Diogo Dalot, and Anthony Martial on the treatment table.
All five of them should be close to rejoining the team, but Thursday night might just be too soon.
The Red Devils are also dealing with other long term injuries, as Eric Bailly and Timothy Fosu-Mensah are both out for the foreseeable future.
Manchester United: Romero, Young, Tuanzebe, Jones, Rojo, Andreas, Fred, Mata, Chong, Greenwood, Gomes
FC Astana: Eric, Rukavina, Shomko, Postnikov, Simunovic, Sigurjonsson, Tomasov, Maevski, Muzhikov, Murtazayev, Rotariu
What to watch for
The kids get their chance
Solskjaer has been adamant that the United youth will get their chance this season, and fans might see the first glimpse of this against Astana. The youngsters at the club have mostly been reduced to substitute appearances so far, but that should change on Thursday.
Mason Greenwood is the most likely candidate to start, especially after the aforementioned injury to Martial. Greenwood was the most impressive player for United in preseason, and has shown plenty of promise during his brief Premier League cameos. Now, supporters are excited to see what he can do at the highest level, especially for an extended period of time.
He will probably have either Angel Gomes or Tahith Chong alongside him in support, if not both. The midfielders have plenty of ability on the ball, but they haven’t gone up against stronger, meaner opposition before. Getting to play a team from a physical league will do a world of good for Gomes and Chong, who will truly be tested in tough conditions.
At the back, Axel Tuanzebe has cemented himself as the third best centre back at the club, only behind the starting partnership of Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire in the pecking order. Both of them have played every minute so far this season, and each deserves some rest. That should open the door for Tuanzebe to play, allowing the youngster the chance to gain some crucial experience under relatively little pressure.
Marcus Rashford famously got his big break in the Europa League, and Solskjaer will hope the likes of Greenwood, Gomes, Chong, and Tuanzebe have similar success in the tournament.