With the U21 league title in the bag, the player of the season Andreas Pereira on international duty and two 1998-born players, RoShaun Williams and Callum Gribbin, on the bench, United took on City in the final game of the season. That was not going to turn out too well.
United fielded a young side overall in today’s game. Matty Willock was born three days after David Beckham scored that sensational half-way line goal against Wimbledon in 1996, and Ashley Fletcher was born the day after Eric Cantona’s comeback game against Liverpool nearly a year prior. The 1997-born U21-debutant Tyler Reid didn’t have any such occasion around his date of birth, but at least one can mention Karel Poborsky’s fifth (out of six) league goals for United were scored against Coventry in a 3-0 win three days before Reid saw daylight.
Ready to rumble straight from the off
The game opened in quite a frantic fashion, brilliant atmosphere and both sides having corner kicks within the opening five minutes. Tom Thorpe headed a Sean Goss corner wide at the one end, and Kieran O’Hara was forced to save an uninspired long-range effort at the other one.
United could’ve had a clear-cut chance after ten minutes of play, when Ben Pearson, who has impressed vastly on loan at Barnsley, slipped through a pass for Ashley Fletcher to come one-on-one with the keeper. Unfortunately, Fletcher’s first touch was poor, so he didn’t really get the chance.
United enjoying domination
The game calmed down two notches after the exciting opening, and United saw the more of possession, although struggling to create clear-cut chances from some pacy attempts. Kellett and James interchanged nicely on the left hand side, switching between offensive and defensive duties to cope with Brandon Barker. The Mancunian England U19 international was actually awarded City’s Academy Player of the Year last season, and is their U21 top goalscorer this season, after providing eight goals from his wide position.
United had another go after 30 minutes play. Tom Thorpe intercepted centrally, it ended up at Pearson’s feet, who chipped through accurately towards Fletcher, but the under-pressure striker’s effort went just off target.
Blues knocking on the door
City had an opportunity to have a shot from range after Thorpe fouled Ihenancho, but the Blues had played too much FIFA and attempted a failed passing combo instead of a direct shot on target.
The hosts came at another visit in the proximity of United’s goal only minutes later, when a Love clearance was blocked and Ihenancho got past O’Hara. Fortunately, Andy Kellett came to the rescue and denied the striker a certain goal.
Moment of magic from Andrew Kellett
However, the deadlock was to be broken before the switch of sides. United had a short corner which led to passes between Rothwell and Kellett, and the latter ended up sending the City defender up in their hot-dog stand through an exquisite Cruyff turn, before finding Ashley Fletcher in the box. Fletcher made no mistakes and United went 1-0 up just before half-time.
Warren Joyce decided to hand Kellett 45 minutes of added holiday for some reason, probably because of a slight injury according to Lou Macari, as Joshua Harrop replaced him. Harrop took place on the right-hand side of midfield, Reece James dropped to left back and Matty Willock went to the left side of midfield.
United enter vacation mode
Nobody knows what was going on in the United dressing room at half time, but maybe Warren Joyce ordered flights to Ibiza for the lads? The champions completely switched off after half time, with their minds apparently nowhere near the game, which was particularly dangerous as City’s Nigerian wonderkid Kelechi Iheanacho switched on.
The subsutiute Nemane forced O’Hara to use his (head and use his) feet after squaring a dangerous pass from the right intially. Not long after, Tasende’s through ball to the top goalscorer Barker was just too long and out of the winger’s reach.
Blues bouncing back
They pay-off for City’s pressure was inevitable though, and what a goal it was! Inheacho turned away from Thorpe and evaded Love’s sliding tackle before slotting it into the corner in the 55th minute.
Inhenacho wasn’t satisfied, however, and forced O’Hara to make a brilliant save from a powerful, well-struck shot ten minutes later. City exploited the corner kick in the best possible manner and when Tasende’s distance effort took a deflection off Love, City had turned the game on its head.
The mayhem was on, and some end-to-end period reoccured. United came closest when Fletcher dribbled himself down the right wing and squared it towards Harrop, but City were saved by the bell and a sliding tackle to deny Harrop a shot on target.
Callum Gribbin was only a matter of inches away from being involved in the perfect substitution after 78 minutes. The U21 rookie had only been on the pitch for a matter of seconds before he went on a promising run and pulled the trigger but he just wasn’t able to keep the ball down.
Ten minutes from time, however, City effectively put the game to bed.. Ihenancho and Ntcham co-operated well to set up the former who slotted it past O’Hara to celebrate his brace. United hadn’t really been up to it in the second half, and 3-1 was the nail in the coffin.
Warren Joyce tried to grind out a goal to pull back, by deploying Thorpe(!) as a striker, but it didn’t yield anything. On a side note, this was probably the last United ever saw of Tom Thorpe, as he’s way too good at this level and not seems to be rated by Louis van Gaal.
Iheanacho could’ve had his hat-trick in added time, when he and Barker went two against one when the United defence was completely out of shape, but the U21 debutant RoShaun Williams positioned himself superbly and was able to block the shot. Only seconds later, Barker had the final shot of the season when Williams not was able to get in a foot, but at least O’Hara was able to get in a hand, and it finished 3-1.
Nonetheless, despite a painful defeat, there were quite a few youngsters who got a taste of the U21 level this afternoon. It’s all about a learning process for them, and after all there is no shame in struggling to cope with Kelechi Ihenacho. Going by this game, the 18-year-old apparently is already far too good for this level, and without him, City probably never would’ve been able to bounce back.
Positives from the season
However, United have delivered a brilliant, title-winning campaign, with all the lads (maybe Love and Grimshaw in particular) and Joyce deserving credit for coping with an inconsistent squad and players having to play out of position. Andreas Pereira was deservedly awarded the player of the year, Kellett has been a great addition, Pearson has been brillant on loan at Barnsley and the captain Tom Thorpe has been the utmost professional to cope with first team omissions and still delivered superbly for the U21s.
United: O’Hara – Reid (Williams 69), Love, Thorpe, Kellett (Harrop 46) – Goss, Pearson, Willock, James – Rothwell (Gribbin 76) – Fletcher
Subs: Harrop, Henderson, El Fitouri, Williams, Gribbin
Goalscorers: Fletcher 43
City: Gunn – Maffeo, Humphreys, Evans, Tasende – Barker, Glendon, Byrne (Garcia 76), Ntcham – Pozo (Nemane 46), Iheanacho
Subs: Horsfield, O’Brien, Garcia, Nemane, Intima
Goalscorers: Ihenacho 55, 80, Tasende 67