It’s squeaky bum-time in the U21 Premier League, and United were in desperate need of a win at Leigh Sports Village against Southampton Monday night. Thankfully, the likes of Ben Amos and Ashley Fletcher showed up in front of the goals to provide the demanded three points.
Reds dominating from the off
United hit the ground running in this crucial U21 game. After winning possession high up the pitch, it went to the overlapping Donald Love on the right-hand side. Love handed the responsibility of a decent cross to Andreas Pereira, who put in a David Beckham-like delivery towards Ashley Fletcher, who was extremely close to convert it. Unfortunately, the header only struck the crossbar and the rebound was booted away for a corner.
Worried United fans were having a concern after only six minutes of play, when Tom Thorpe suffered quite a heavy knock to his ankle after a 50-50 challenge in the centre circle. Thorpe is, as we know, a crucial figure, captain and the glue of the U21 side, but despite him limping off in pain, he was able to return to the pitch later.
Andreas Pereira suffered another impact injury minute later, when being hit by the knee of a Southampton player, but fortunately the prospect was able to carry on. The scenes was inconveniently similiar to when Anthony Knockaert did the ribs of Rafael some weeks back.
… but domination continues
Just into the second quarter of the game, United got the upper hand of Southampton. Phil Jones enjoyed possession at the half way line, spotted Fletcher on a run inside the box and pin-pointed him inch-perfectly with a floating long ball. (Yes, it was actually Phil Jones doing this!) Fletcher made no mistakes, brought it down on his chest and volleyed it relentlessly past the goalkeeper, for United to go 1-0 up. This was Fletcher’s first goal at U21 level, after being a regular on the scoresheets for the U18s in the past. It was probably even more pleasant to get off the mark with his (former) U21 coach Paul McGuinness in the stands, sitting next to Nicky Butt.
Phil Jones almost topping himself
Only minutes after completing his first U21 assist for United, Phil Jones did actually come close to scoring his first as well. United had a corner after a brilliant Donald Love interception and subsequently blocked cross, and Jones slipped away from the marking of Southampton’s zonal marking set-up, and only a brilliant reflex by the former Norwich shotstopper Will Britt in the Saints net could deny him the celebration.
The Saints bounce back… kind of.
Southampton could easily slip into the relegation mud, and it was quite easy to spot why. The Saints didn’t offer much on the attacking foot, both their visits in United’s box coming from set-pieces. A corner after about five minutes and a floated free-kick from midfield in the later stages of the half was all they could mix up, with the result of Ben Amos comfortably catching both of them confidently.
The Saints, for the occasion dressed in a black outfit, returned from the dressing-room as a significantly improved side for the second half showdown. A more aggressive and determined approach, meant a tight, although uneventful in terms of scoring chances, opening fifteen minutes of the second half. However, nothing came from it, despite both sides having attempts form the corners and Saints had a free-kick from a decent position as well, which the winger Sam McQueen wasted into the wall.
Dominic Gape had a better attempt on a free-kick shortly after, which additionally was caused by a James Weir challenge and subsequent booking, but Amos could’ve clutched it being blindfolded.
Warren Joyce shuffles the deck
With just slightly less than half an hour of play to go, Phil Jones was substituted for the midfielder and former Arsenal youth player Matt Willock, who’s a regular in terms of being substituted on for United. Jones had put in a shift, providing an assist, almost a goal, and not allowing Southampton much. Willock, on the other hand, took place in midfield, with the versatile defender Liam Grimshaw moving from centre midfield back to centre back.
Five minutes later, Sadiq El Fitouri, who hasn’t impressed on this level in the past despite being compared with Johan Cruyff by Phil Neville, replaced Donald Love at right back. Love had ben an asset at right back, particularly in attack, during the 67 minutes he got, so there was no reason for him to be disappointed with his effort.
Saints come marching in
United got a wake-up call after 71 minutes, when El Fitouri struggled at right back and Gallagher was extremely close to tap the squared pass home, but the attempt just deflected off the crossbar. However, United didnt wake up, and El Fitouri gave away possession once again only a minute later, which allowed the Saints striker Hesketh to do just as his striking comrade Gallagher: Hit the crossbar.
In an attempt to turn things around, Southampton made a double substition with twelve minutes to go. Sims and Seager replaced Barnes and Hesketh, and particularly getting their top goalscorer Ryan Seager on was a statement of intent.
Will Britt marches out (well, in fact he doesn’t)
Both sides had some half chances without really putting the opposing goalkeeper on a proper test. Will Britt in the Southampton net had a calamitous involvement after 85 minutes though, despite it cost himself more than it cost Southampton. Januzaj, who was more or less invisible for most of the game, curled in a corner, which slipped through Britt’s hands to be subsequently booted away by McQueen, but the problems weren’t over yet. The goalkeeper had a misplaced step and went to ground immediately, before he was stretchered off after four minutes of medical treatment. Apparently the knee was the problem, and Cody Cropper had to replace him.
Ben Amos for the rescue
Despite the game seemed to fade away a bit, as no side was able to create a clear-cut chance, the showdown wasnt over yet. Only seconds from time, the ball ended up at Sam McQueen’s feet outside the box. The winger, who has been at St Mary’s since he was eight years old, pulled off a brilliant attempt who was bound for the bottom corner. However, Ben Amos had no intention of letting Liverpool remain at the top of the U21 league, and pulled off a match-winning save, with basically the final touch of the game.
City to deny United the title?
In other words, United remain top of the league, despite Liverpool were one point ahead after beating Leicester 2-1 prior to United’s game. However, with United on 37 points, Chelsea could as well equal that, as the Blues have two games in hand.
Bizarrely, United’s two remaining games of the season are both against Manchester City, so this victory was absolutely crucial, as derbies never are easy. On the other hand, Chelsea and Liverpool face off on Thursday, which obviously will play a key role in the title race as well.
United (1): Amos – Love (El Fitouri 67), Jones (Willock 62), Blackett, Kellett – Weir, Thorpe, Grimshaw, Januzaj – A. Pereira – Fletcher
Subs: Willock, J. Pereira, El Fitouri, Pearson, Williams
Goal: Fletcher 17
Southampton (0): Britt (Cropper 89) – Mugabi, Cook, McCarthy, Debayo – Barnes (Sims 78), Jones, Gape, McQueen – Hesketh (Seager 78), Gallagher
Subs: Sims, Cropper, Seager, Wood, Sinclair