Ole Gunnar Solskjaer need not have worried have putting too much pressure on his young shoulders.
And when the moment came for Mason Greenwood to justify the hype, he delivered. United were running out of ideas against a stubborn Astana side when Fred fed Greenwood the ball out on the right in the 73rd minute.
The 17-year-old only had one thing in mind. He teased Dorin Rotariu before sweeping past his opponent and casually guiding the ball through the legs of goalkeeper Nenad Eric.
Greenwood had broken through on United’s summer tour with goals against Inter Milan and Leeds but this was the real thing. His first official goal for United, and the first of many you can be sure of that.
It ensured a happy end to a night that saw Greenwood make his full European debut alongside Axel Tuanzebe, Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes. For a long time it looked like ending in frustration. After all, nothing sums up United’s fall from grace quite like Thursday night football against the champions of Kazakhstan.
Solskjaer’s team have been lumped in with so many of Europe’s also-rans that they kicked off their campaign all the way down in Group L. Inevitably, there were plenty of empty seats at Old Trafford and only 230 of them were filled by Astana fans, many of whom were making the 6,000-mile round trip from Kazakhstan. ‘Borat, Borat give us a song,’ sang the United supporters, but it was the visitors who looked like having the last laugh until Greenwood struck.
Astana had beaten FC Santa Coloma of Andorra, Valetta of Malta and Bate Borisov of Belarus in the qualifying rounds, but this was another level altogether against a much-changed United side as Solskjaer made good on his promise to give his youngsters an opportunity in this competition.
The inclusion of four youngsters meant it was a line-up with an average age of less than 24, while Sergio Romero, Fred and Marcos Rojo were given rare starts.
Greenwood had to be happy with a place wide on the right to allow Marcus Rashford to play through the middle, and Solskjaer may have wished that the three chances squandered by Rashford in the first half had fallen to his younger team-mate instead.
Fred hit the side-netting with a freekick from 20 yards and a more accurate set-piece attempt, curled over the defensive wall, brought another good save from Eric. Astana reminded United that they still carried a threat when Rotariu got on the end of Marin Tomasov’s clever cross but could only guide it the wrong side of Romero’s right-hand post.
United were only denied a second when Eric touched Lingard’s shot onto the inside of the post and Dalot fired the loose ball over an open goal.
This was an important win in the context of a group that also includes AZ Alkmaar and Partizan Belgrade but, more importantly, a vital stage in the learning curve of these young players.