Our Under-23s were edged out by Manchester United in a high-octane Premier League 2 encounter at Leigh Sports Village on Sunday.
The game was on a knife edge throughout, but we couldn’t claw back United’s two-goal lead, a 3-1 advantage crucially handed to them by Arnau Puigmal in first-half injury time. Always in the game, that goal was a blow to the team at half-time.
Regardless, the players came out fighting in the second half, reduced the arrears quickly through Harvey White and were then denied three times by Paul Woolston in the United goal, Marcel Lavinier, Jack Clarke and J’Neil Bennett all left frustrated. Anthony Elanga broke away to restore United’s two-goal advantage and a final 4-2 scoreline in the 93rd minute.
Kion Etete earlier cancelled out Shola Shoretire’s opener, before Puigmal’s double on 32 and 45+3 minutes put the home side in control.
The first half was played at an intense pace. Dennis Cirkin had the ball in the net on three minutes, but the whistle had gone for handball as he pulled the trigger. As tackles thundered in and both teams looked to press, United forged ahead on 13 minutes when Facundo Pellistri got to the right byline and his cross was powered home by Shoretire.
We responded well, Cirkin forced a fine save from Woolston and it was no surprise when Etete darted between defenders to meet Brooklyn Lyons-Foster’s cross on the slide and tuck the ball into the corner. Lyons-Foster almost capitalised on a defensive mistake but placed his shot wide only for United to regain the advantage on 32 minutes when Shoretire found Puigmal and he drilled low across Alfie Whiteman and home from the right edge of the box.
Clarke and Etete went close, Ethan Galbraith curled just wide and that looked like that for the first half until the final seconds when Puigmal broke onto Lukasz Bejger’s pass, raced into the box and blasted home, handing United an advantage that didn’t really reflect the half.
A positive start to the second half was required and delivered by White on 52 minutes. George Marsh robbed Hannibal Mejbri midway in United’s half and picked out Clarke, and the winger tucked inside for White to convert for 3-2.
Jamie Bowden stepped off the bench for his first appearance of the season after injury and Woolston put up his barrier as we pushed for an equaliser. Lavinier was denied at close range on 72 minutes, Bennett’s fierce strike was parried away two minutes later and then Clarke went for the near post from the right angle but the goalkeeper was equal to it.
Not surprisingly, gaps were opening up as we committed men forward. Jubril Okedina and Tobi Omole, on his first competitive start for us, produced goal saving blocks on Joe Hugill and Elanga, Woolston raced out to gather at the feet of Etete and then the final word as Elanga broke into the box from the left and produced a measured finish into the far corner.
Under-23s Coach Wayne Burnett felt there wasn’t much in the contest, but rued our overall display in the first 45 minutes: “I was a little disappointed in the first half, disappointed in the way we conceded the goals, especially right on the stroke of half-time, because when you come to a place like Manchester United, you can’t afford to give them that advantage. We were disappointed with the first goal, but got back into the game with a really well-worked equaliser, a good finish from Kion, and I’m pleased he got his goal. We got a little control then, got a foothold in the game, were comfortable, but then gave them another goal. We got ourselves back into it again, then the goal just before half-time has killed us.
“I didn’t think we played well enough in the first half, but at the same time, I didn’t think we should have been 3-1 down. That’s what happens if you don’t track runners and pick players up. We made a game of it in the second half, much better, more aggressive with and without the ball, got back in it at 3-2 and it was a really open game. They countered us, we countered them and it was a bit of a basketball game. We had one or two chances at 3-2, the goalkeeper made a save from Jack, a block from Marcel, and if it’s 3-3, who knows? It wasn’t though, they got a late goal for 4-2 and I just felt it was closer than that. There wasn’t much in it, maybe they were a touch more clinical than us. So, disappointed, but we have to learn from this and get better at capitalising on the key moments.”