Anthony Martial penalty in Belgrade ends United winless away run on Thursday night helped Manchester United earned an unconvincing 1-0 win over Partizan Belgrade, lifting Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men to the top of Group L in the Europa League.
After beating Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League back in March, United had gone 11 games without an away win in all competitions until Thursday’s game in Serbia-their worst such streak in 40 years.
Yet the traveling contingent of the Red Devils were finally given reason to celebrate again as a spot-kick from Martial-making its first start since August 24 after injury-complemented by the club’s third clean sheet in as many matches for this term in the Europa League.
United’s overall performance was far from impressive and a lack of creativity was again apparent as a side showing seven changes from Sunday’s encouraging 1-1 draw with Liverpool failed to muster a single shot on target besides Martial’s penalty.
However, the result will at least please Solskjaer as the 2016-17 Europa League winners are firmly on course to reach the knockout stages having claimed seven points from three games.
The only clear-cut chance of a turgid opening half-hour, in which United dominated possession, saw Scott McTominay wastefully head wide at the far post from Juan Mata’s inviting 15th-minute free-kick.
A brief spell of Partizan pressure heralded a significant rise in entertainment value, with the fit-again Jesse Lingard and Umar Sadiq each striking the post in quick succession.
Martial then calmly sent Vladimir Stojkovic the wrong way from 12 yards, after Brandon Williams’ surging run into the hosts’ box had drawn a clear foul from Nemanja Miletic.
United, who handed a first start to 18-year-old midfielder James Garner, were pegged back for much of the second half, though, and had to survive a succession of penalty appeals from Partizan, the most convincing arriving in the 67th minute when Miletic’s back-post header appeared to strike the arm of Williams.
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A furious Miletic was booked for his protests after the referee refused to point to the spot and the hosts’ pressure continued to go unrewarded, with Sergio Romero saving sharply from Takuma Asano late on.
When you have not won in 11 away matches, any success on the road has to be seen as a positive. However, this display will have done little to silence Solskjaer’s doubters as United offered precious little attacking threat against modest opposition.
Although United continues to look worryingly limited from a creative point of view, its defense in the Europa League has so far been extremely impressive. Partizan huffed and puffed throughout the second period, but in Harry Maguire’s first game as captain, the visitors were just about holding firm.
United offered next to nothing going forward after the interval, even after the introductions of Marcus Rashford and Daniel James on the hour. It was a difficult watch at times, with Solskjaer’s side never looking likely to extend their lead.