Andrew Flint –
Astana vs Manchester United – Thursday, November 28, 15:50 GMT/16:50 CET – Astana Arena, Nur-Sultan – Kazakhstan
The dream may be over, but it is a measure of the progress Astana have made that they are bitterly disappointed to have been left with nothing to show whatsoever for their campaign. Nur-Sultan is a new-modern city awash with spectacular skylines, and with a club that has no intention of simply being a novelty on the European stage. In their two previous group-stage seasons in the competition, they accumulated five points and then 10 points, the latter leading to a hugely creditable 6-4 aggregate defeat in the knockouts to Sporting.
Much as the sheen has worn of the 2017 champions Manchester United, they still represent a prize scalp worth fighting for. There is a large local support for the three-time European champions so the atmosphere will likely be a strange mix of muted interest, split volumes and sporadic surges of local pride. Even the most well-trained media appearances will struggle to convince onlookers of any genuine fire in the belly beyond personal pride. That personal pride should not be discounted, however.
Curiously, Kazakh football is almost overshadowed by the success of its futsal teams. Last season, Kairat Almaty reached the Futsal Champions League final four as hosts, while this season MFK Ayat were comfortably beaten by surprise package MFK Tyumen in the elite round. For all the relative glitz and glamour of Nur-Sultan and the promise of Kazakhstan’s new generation of hungry players, the country is still a hard sell to the next level of players necessary to elevate them to regulars in the latter stages of European football. A result against United might just raise a few eyebrows.
A month ago, the monkey of no away wins for six months was finally lifted off Manchester United’s back. To think that the pressure has been removed from Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s shoulders would be fanciful at best though. Calls from the fanbase for the Norwegian to step down have intensified in the wake of former candidate Mauricio Pochettino’s dismissal by Tottenham Hotspur chairman Daniel Levy. Opposition supporters have delighted in the continued struggles of the new-look side that is struggling to compose a complete 90 minutes of commanding, attacking the football.
To his credit, he has stuck rigidly to his guns of supporting the club’s fine heritage of producing a clear path to the first team for its multitude of academy graduates. Every single Manchester United matchday squad since 1937 has included at least one academy product and judging by this season’s squad that won’t end any time soon. A cynic might suggest that it is simply the only option available to a manager left with the detritus of a ruinous reign under the poisonous negativity of Jose Mourinho. The best football this season, even if it has been patchy, has undoubtedly been played with the very youngsters that Solskjær has promoted. The comeback from 2-0 against an enterprising Sheffield United side at the weekend was orchestrated by goals from 18-year-old Mason Greenwood, 19-year-old Brandon Williams, and 22-year-old Marcus Rashford.
Rashford has been in the first team for over three years now, but the fact that Williams has been left behind suggests his importance in his manager’s immediate plans is significant. Ten of the 18 players to have made the 4,800km trip to Kazakhstan are from the under-23 development squad. Most clubs would look at this dead rubber as a pain in the neck and struggle to motivate themselves for the task at hand. With the faith, Solskjær has shown his emerging talents, and the strong ethos of a hungry fresh attitude he has imbued in them, there is little chance they will miss the message being sent to them: perform out in the Central Asian steppe, and the Old Trafford pitch will be next.
Astana vs Manchester United – Players to Watch
Marin Tomasov #14 – Astana
The Croatian winger is tearing up Kazakh football with a monstrous record scoring and setting up goals. In 31 league games last campaign – which predictably ended with another league title, their fifth in a row – he had a hand in 33 goals. Although he wasn’t involved in his side’s only Europa League goal, this can be explained by the vast difference in the quality of opposition. Even still, his experienced head is full of confidence and now has zero pressure – it is a potent mix for the 32-year-old former 1860 Munich winger. With the evergreen makeup of United’s travelling squad, there will be an opportunity for Tomasov to have one last crack at a European heavyweight.
James Garner #37 – Manchester United
With domestic pressures building almost exponentially – matches against former manager Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur and the Manchester Derby against reigning champions Manchester City are coming in the next fortnight – it is understandable that Ole Gunnar Solskjær is opting for youth. His manifesto after taking over from the dour Portuguese tactician has firmly shoved youth and energy to the forefront, and although Garner is not the headline act his role will be critical. His introduction to the first-team squad has given him a semblance of seniority amongst the travelling squad, and at 19 he is, in fact, the oldest of the central midfielders. Garner plays with the upright posture of a far more experienced midfield general – he will need to play like one.
Astana vs Manchester United – Match Stats
- Astana are already out of the competition with a dismal record of four defeats from four games, 14 goals conceded and just one scored
- Astana have won nine of their last 13 European home games, although many of those have come in the qualifying section
- They have lost their last three group-stage matches in this competition
- Manchester United are already qualified to the knockout stages having not conceded a single goal in four games
- United are unbeaten in their last 15 Europa League matches, including the last seven away from home
- They have kept clean sheets in 11 of those games
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Astana vs Manchester United: 0-2
Astana vs Manchester United – Possible Lineups
Eric – Rukavina, Postnikov, Simunović, Shomko – Maevskiy – Tomasov, Pertsukh, Rotariu, Murtazaev – Khiznichenko
Manager: Roman Hryhorchuk
Grant – Fosu-Mensah, Taylor, Bernard, Shaw – Garner, Galbraith – Chong, Lingard, Gomes – Greenwood
Manager: Ole Gunnar Solskjær
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.