It’s squeaky bum time in the U21 Premier League, and United are looking to exploit the games in hand to catch up with league leaders Sunderland and clinch a second league title in a row. On a rainy Monday night at Old Trafford, Paddy McNair was the one to make sure Warren Joyce’ boys took another step in the right direction.
The first occasion where United looked like scoring occured already after eight minutes. Weir and Borthwick-Jackson combined nicely on the left, with the latter finding his way into a crossing position. However, he only knocked the ball across the face of the goal, instead of cutting it back for Rooney.
Not long after, Arnel Jakupovic was chasing a goal at the other end, when RoShaun Williams failed to clear the ball. Fortunately for the Reds, the 17-year-old Austrian failed to pull off a threatening shot on target.
Apart from that, the opening half of an hour didn’t contain much. United passed it around, but struggled to unlock Middlesbrough’s solid 4-4-2 system.
Rothwell fortunate to not leave the pitch on a stretcher
Joe Rothwell looked to provide the first goal of the night, combining his way towards the edge of the area, but instead of scoring, he was absolutely bulldozed by the Boro skipper Jonny Burn after a 1-2 pass with Weir. In fact it was so bad that Burn not seeing the red card was some sort of a divine intervention for the Riverside outfit, and Rothwell was extremely lucky to not have his leg snapped.
However, Rothwell was not able to carry on for more than a pocketful of minutes, and had to limp off before half-time.
Inside the three added minutes of the first half, United for the first time managed to pile up some pressure around the Boro box. Unfortunately, the closest thing it came to a goal was Paddy McNair blasting the ball way off target from somewhere outside the box.
Captain Weir done at half-time
At the half-time break, the captain James Weir was withdrawn precautionally after taking a knee, and Sadiq El Fitouri entered the stage. This meantthat Donald Love and Devonte Redmond were playing in the centre of the pitch, with Pereira and El Fitouri on either flank and McNair behind them.
United’s club captain could’ve made a dream return to football after fifty-odd minutes, when Cameron Borthwick-Jackson was tripped outside the box and handed a free-kick. Unfortunately, Rooney curled the free-kick opportunity over the crossbar.
Devonte Redmond came close to the opener later on, when Rooney delivered a brillant floated cross to Pereira to turn the play, and the Belgian crossed it towards Redmond, but he just couldn’t get to tap it home.
Rooney subbed on the hour
Bang on the sixty-minute mark Wayne Rooney was subbed off for Axel Tuanzebe, in what appeared to be a pre-planned substitution. Not the best afternoon for Rooney, floating some crosses about and wasting a few shots, but at least he regained some fitness and didn’t get injured.
Tactically, that meant Pereira up-front, Love out wide, Tuanzebe at centre-back and Jones in midfield, which speaks a story of players with great flexibility positon-wise.
United go in front!
67 minutes into the game, when fellow title chasers Sunderland were 2-1 down at Tottenham, Paddy McNair decided that enough was enough and displayed that he really wants to win that title. Andreas Pereira crossed it from the right, the ball went over the aerial challenge and ended up at McNair’s feet. The adaptable Northern Irishman swept it home from close range and put United 1-0 up!
However, United struggled to put the guests under some proper pressure. Ten minutes after the goal, the Red Devils approached their box again, but Joe Riley was tracked down by Burn when he attempted to head home Love’s cross.
Reds denied by the framework
Andreas Pereira has proved time and time again that he’s too good for U21 football and just a few minutes from time he came closer than anyone to extend United’s lead. From some distance he pulled the trigger and saw the ball fly past Fryer in the Boro net, but unfortunately it didn’t dip enough – and rattled the crossbar!
Two points needed
However, United docked the three points this night, and with Sunderland losing 3-1 to Tottenham, the league title is certainly within reach. The Black Cats’ loss against Spurs was their final opportunity of the season to add to their point tally, and an away win when United visit White Hart Lane next week will eventually wrap it up for good.
Manchester United 1-0 Middlesbrough | MUFC: McNair | MFC
Man United: Johnstone – Riley, Jones, Williams, Borthwick-Jackson – Love, McNair, Rothwell (A. Pereira 39), Redmond, Weir (El Fitouri 46)– Rooney (Tuanzebe 61)
Subs: J. Pereira, El Fitouri, Poole, Tuanzebe, A. Pereira
Middlesbrough: Fryer, Johnson, Tinkler, McKinley, Burn – Jones (Kitching 76), Fry, Wheatley, Cooke – McAllon (Morris 79), Jakupovic
Subs: Morris, Pears, Kitching, Maloney, Elsdon