Andrew Flint –
Manchester United vs Astana – Thursday, September 19, 20:00 BST/21:00 CET – Old Trafford, Manchester – England
Much to the mirth of their many rival fans, Manchester United must once again make do with Europe’s second tier competition. In truth, they ought to be grateful for any competition at all; such is the disastrous state of the club’s management at board level. Thursday nights might not be what Oleg Gunnar Solskjaer had in mind. However, as always, there is a brighter way of looking at the situation. Here is a team that is in desperate need of the opportunity to gel, learn their manager’s philosophy inside out, undergo the necessary physical and tactical preparation to do so; all, preferably, in a slightly more controlled environment without the judgemental glare of their gleeful, bitter domestic opponents.
Where better than the Europa League? A huge amount has been made of the inability or lack of awareness at not signing replacements for Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez. To tow that line is to miss the point; their removal from the squad was not about their perceived lack of ability, but about them not fitting into the new manager’s chosen system. In short, it is not they that need replacing, but the attitude and system. Mason Greenwood is as highly rated an attacking prospect to come out of the Manchester United academy as many can remember. He may well fit the profile, but there is also no avoiding his youth and lack of experience. Axel Tuanzebe had a successful loan spell at promoted Aston Villa last season, but playing in different systems.
Slowly but surely, the picture starts to take focus. Just as the mighty Liverpool side of the 1970s and 1980s had to learn to accept their reduced standing in the world, so too must Manchester United now. It does not mean it is all doom and gloom if this pathway is followed though. Last time in the competition, it offered a rare glimmer of positivity in the most pungent managerial spell in recent times under José Mourinho. Astana, not Ajax; Thursday, not Tuesday or Wednesday; second chances, not second rate. This campaign might just be the making of United’s next generation.
Astana is a place that is anything but ordinary. The easternmost city under UEFA’s jurisdiction, it was built with modernity in mind. Soaring glass-fronted skyscrapers jostle for places with a new brand of architecture that thrusts Kazakhstan’s capital into the broader conscience. What was once a simple place, named simply ‘Capital,’ it is now a tribute to one of the more controversial presidents of a former Soviet state. Nur-Sultan, in short, is not a place that has gathered a natural history of its own.
Already it has hosted dramatic sporting theatre. Kazakhstan’s record as an international power is non-existent. Scotland fancied their chances of muscling their way in on the race for the second spot behind Belgium in the Euro 2020 qualification group, and although it was two decades ago, had been to the World Cup many times before. And yet when Manchester United’s Scott McTominay and his Scottish teammates left with their tails between their legs following a controlled 3-0 drubbing, the apple cart was well and truly upset. Astana themselves are a power domestically – five titles in a row attest to that – but are yet to make their similarly groundbreaking statement in continental competition.
Visits to grand stages like Old Trafford will be an aspirational achievement in itself, but they are not here to be trodden on. Lessons can be learned from their international colleagues in how to utilise their patience and organisation. If their scouting and analysis team have done their job properly, they will have noticed that United are not the consistently ruthless machine they once were. Allow them no comfort, frustrate their young minds, and an upset is possible.
Manchester United vs Astana – Players to watch
Daniel James #21 – Manchester United
The Welsh winger shot to prominence for Swansea last season with his eye-watering pace down the flanks, and one solo goal in particular when he carried the ball from just outside his own penalty area and blazed past the bewildered back-pedaling defenders. A ₤16 million move to Manchester United followed in line with manager Ole Gunnar Solkjaer’s vision for an athletic, young, British core. It was expected that he would be eased in gradually, but he has hit the ground running scoring three goals in five games already. He is more than just searing speed though; his ability to carry the ball within his control past defenders will open up chances for his teammates. Given that Astana will be expected to set a solid defensive structure to try and frustrate United, a spark from somewhere might be needed to break down the stubborn resistance. James offers that in abundance.
Ivan Maevskiy #18 – Astana
With the usual shape taking a centrally-dominated 4-1-4-1 shape, the whole system relies on an experienced and calm head in front of the defence. Ivan Maevskiy offers just that. The German-born Belarus international has a calmness in possession that will be vital to the production of counter-attacks when the rare chance comes along. His positional sense is excellent too; with the knowledge that United like to attack wide in an attempt to drag their opponents out of position, his authority in maintaining control of his teammates’ shape will be essential. Although not known or usually employed to take long shots, he does have a powerful strike on him from a distance.
Manchester United vs Astana – Match stats
- Neither side have faced an opponent the respective country
- Manchester United won this competition the last time they appeared in it in 2016/17
- Manchester United have won every groups-stage match they have played in the Europa League – although that is only two group-stage campaigns
- Astana have won the Kazakhstan title five years in a row, and are in the Europa League for the fourth year in a row
- Two seasons ago Astana made it through to the knockout stages for the first time ever in their history
- Scott McTominay was on the pitch in Nur-Sultan when Scotland were humbled 3-0 by Kazakhstan, with Astana players Evgeniy Postnikov, Roman Murtazaev and Serikzhan Muzhikov all featuring for the hosts
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Manchester United vs Astana – 3-1
Manchester United vs Astana – Possible lineups
Romero – Young, Maguire, Tuanzebe, Shaw – McTominay, Pogba, Andreas – James, Rashford, Greenwood
Manager: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Eric – Rukavina, Simunovic, Postnikov, Shomko – Maevskiy – Tomasov, Muzhikov, Sigurjonsson, Murtazaev – Rotariu
Manager: Roman Hryhorchuk
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.