This was the 3,999th game which Manchester United have named an academy product in their matchday squad – a record dating back some 81 years – and it is easy to see why there is such excitement about the latest young player expected to make the grade.
Mason Greenwood scored the fifth and sixth goals of his fledgling Old Trafford career on Thursday night – maintaining a 100% record in home European fixtures – as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side beat AZ Alkmaar to ensure they finish top of their Europa League group.
Qualification was already secured for both United and AZ, making this little more than low-wattage battle for supremacy in Group L, but victory at least means that Solskjaer will avoid two legs against one of the stronger sides to drop out of the Champions League.
The three points came thanks to a short, sharp second-half blitz of goals with relative veterans Ashley Young and Juan Mata also on the scoresheet and, more importantly, it sustains the promising run of form established by last week’s hugely significant victories over Tottenham and Manchester City.
Solskjaer made nine changes from Saturday’s derby but still named a relatively strong side given that qualification was assured. Nemanja Matic made his first appearance after two months sidelined with a groin problem, while the presence of Young and Harry Maguire brought seniority to a line-up containing three teenagers.
Few saw the second-half onslaught coming during a dour first 45 minutes that ended with no real clear-cut opportunities for either side, but perhaps that was to be expected from two sides already in Monday’s last-32 draw. AZ’s play was purposeful, at least, and winger Oussama Idrissi caused Young problems.
The closest United came to scoring was from one of the counter-attacks they are perfecting under Solskjaer. A flowing move up the pitch ended with Young’s cross at the feet of Mata but his goal-bound shot was turned away by the feet of Jordy Clasie, the former Southampton midfielder.
But at the start of the second half, Young would begin a free-scoring 10-minute spell when United assured they would finish top of Group L. It began with the full-back applying a cool, lofted finish into the roof of the net after Mata, Matic and Andreas Pereira brilliant, intricate play in the inside-left channel.
Young became United’s first scorer over the age of 26 this season with that goal. Their youngest found the second. James Garner’s challenge on Fredrik Midtsjo looked like a foul on second viewing but, with no VAR in use until February’s knock-out stages, Greenwood was allowed to shoot first-time from outside the area and past goalkeeper Marco Bizot.
Greenwood was at the centre of things again shortly after when tripped by Clasie. AZ could have few complaints this time, as Clasie had clumsily stepped across the teenager and tripped him. Bizot guessed correctly for the spot-kick, diving to his left, but was still beaten by stand-in taker Mata.
And barely another minute had passed before Greenwood had added his second and United’s fourth. It was a second assist of the night for Mata to add to his penalty, but this was all about Greenwood: a shift inside from the right and a shot across Bizot with his left to pick out the far corner.
Greenwood is two-footed and attempted to end the evening by showcasing this rare and valuable quality, cutting inside from the left this time and clearing the crossbar by a few yards. No matter. His talent is already in no doubt but with this brace, he demonstrated why he is thought of as the next great hope.