Mason Greenwood and Man United youth take advantage of opportunity Europa League presents them
MANCHESTER, England -- The gaps in the crowd at Old Trafford on Thursday were proof enough of Manchester United fans' attitude toward the Europa League. A cold night in December and a game with nothing riding on it does not help, but there is no escaping the fact that whether it's the supporters, players or even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, no one really wanted to be here.
Thursday night football in the Europa League represents a failure for a club of United's size. It is a reminder that they weren't good enough to qualify for the Champions League, Europe's premier club competition, and have been forced to settle for second best. There is a reason why the value of United's multimillion-pound deal with kit manufacturer Adidas will drop by 20% if they miss out on Champions League football for two consecutive seasons.
The bright side, though, is that for now at least the Europa League suits Solskjaer.
With qualification from Group L secured after just four games, the United manager had the luxury of resting every senior player bar Jesse Lingard and Luke Shaw for the gruelling 6,000-mile round trip to FC Astana. Against AZ Alkmaar at Old Trafford, Solskjaer was able to give David de Gea, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Victor Lindelof, Scott McTominay, Daniel James and Marcus Rashford the night off. In their place were Brandon Williams, Axel Tuanzebe, James Garner and Mason Greenwood.
And therein lies the silver lining of a campaign in the Europa League: Solskjaer has been able to give his young players a chance.
Greenwood, in particular, took his against Alkmaar. With United already leading 1-0 thanks to a rare Ashley Young goal, Garner won the ball back in midfield and Greenwood lashed a right-footed drive past Marco Bizot from 20 yards.
Four minutes later, the 18-year-old was brought down in the box by former Southampton man Jordy Clasie, and Juan Mata dispatched the penalty. Only another two minutes had gone by when Greenwood jinked his way to inside the penalty area and beat Bizot at his near post, this time with his left foot.
Terrace chants are not always dependent of the truth, but "Mason Greenwood is dynamite -- he scores them with his left foot and score them with his right" is fairly accurate.
Greenwood has scored six goals this season -- in just seven starts -- and four of them have come in the Europa League. The experience he has gotten in European competition meant Solskjaer felt comfortable handing him a first Premier League start of the season against Tottenham. It's unlikely that would have happened without the Europa League.
Just like UEFA's foreigners rule enforced during United's early campaigns in the Champions League handed chances to young players such as Nicky Butt, Gary Neville and David Beckham, the latest batch of academy graduates are benefiting from a season away from the Champions League glare.
"You've got to make the most of the situation you're in and we knew this year was going to be one in the Europa League," Solskjaer said after the 4-0 win ensured United finished top of Group L. "They've had some great experience, these kids. They're developing and learning. They need games against men.
"The Under-23 league can only take you so far. They've taken massive strides forward. The Europa League has helped players like Brandon establish himself because you forget that he didn't even come on the preseason tour."
The question for Solskjaer now is how he handles the rest of the competition.
United know only too well that it provides a route back into the Champions League, having won it under Jose Mourinho in 2017. Fifth in the Premier League table and five points adrift of the top four, Solskjaer will have to balance progress in the Europa League and handing his youngsters more experience.
For now, the Norwegian is insisting the kids have earned the right to play against whoever comes out of the hat in Monday's draw for the round of 32, but heavyweights like Ajax and Inter Milan are likely to lurk in the latter rounds.
"The young players have not put a foot wrong," Solskjaer said. "They have not given me any reason not to play them. It depends on who's injured and who needs games. They needed games, but I felt quite confident we would win the group."
Solskjaer will hope this is his last season in the Europa League, but he has reason to be grateful for it this term. If it provides a springboard for the likes of Greenwood, Tuanzebe, Garner and Williams to become part of the next successful United team, then it will have served an important purpose. The Europa League is certainly not the height of European football, but it has got Solskjaer and his young guns flying.