Ashley Fletcher’s first-half goal was enough to give Manchester United a 1-0 win over Southampton on Monday night.
The Barclays Under-21 Premier League leaders’ dominant opening half hour gave them the three points in the end, but the scoreline wasn’t entirely fair on Martin Hunter’s side’s, who struck the woodwork twice in a vastly improved second half display.
United sent out a strong side featuring England international Phil Jones and Belgium winger Adnan Januzaj, as well as the likes of goalkeeper Ben Amos, captain Tom Thorpe and on-loan Andy Kellett, who all boast varying degrees of Football League experience.
In contast, Hunter fielded a relatively inexperienced team, with defender Ollie Cook earning his fourth start of the season at this level whilst Alfie Jones and Under-18s leading goalscorer Marcus Barnes lined up for their full debuts.
And with barely three minutes on the clock, Saints were fortunate not to find themselves a goal down. Andreas Pereira’s curling cross was met by the head of forward Fletcher, who thundered a header against Will Britt’s crossbar, with Cook hurriedly slicing the rebound over and away from danger.
With Fletcher and Pereira working well in tandem, it didn’t look like it would take long for Warren Joyce’s men to make a breakthrough, and so it proved. Jones, a member of Roy Hodgson’s 23-man World Cup squad last summer, sent in a long, raking crossfield ball in search of Fletcher in the penalty area. The tall striker controlled in on his chest before firing inside Will Britt’s near post to give the hosts a 17-minute lead.
Sam Gallagher, back in the centre forward position, found opportunities hard to come by in the first period, with much of the play taking place in Southampton’s half. The 19 year-old’s last appearance in Saints’ first team came against United on the final day of last season when he was pitted against Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic but, this time round, it was another international in Jones who kept him quiet.
Likewise, on the Red Devils’ left flank, Januzaj remained a latent threat, largely nullified by Bevis Mugabi, but the 20 year-old did show fleeting glimpses of quality – his delicate through ball for Kellett one such moment, though the offside flag denied the full-back the chance to feed Fletcher in the half’s dying minutes.
Saints re-entered the contest with renewed vigour after the break, though, and Gallagher had the ball in the net six minutes after the restart. The offside flag, however, was already in the air.
Left-back Kellett’s foul on the edge of the area presented Sam McQueen with a chance to have a strike on goal, but his effort struck the wall, almost falling for Jason McCarthy in the box.
Then, after James Weir was booked for flattening Jake Hesketh, Dom Gape warmed the palms of Ben Amos with a curling free kick and Barnes flashed a left-footed drive just past the post as the visitors continued to press for a leveller. Barnes nearly got on the end of Hesketh’s hopeful ball forward, but Amos was quick off his line to clear.
With just under 20 minutes to go, Saints came agonizingly close on two occasions. First, Gallagher rattled the crossbar with a fierce shot from Hesketh’s cutback before the latter himself tried his luck just a minute later, with his shot clipping the bar with Amos beaten.
18-goal frontman Ryan Seager and the pacy Josh Sims were introduced in the latter stages but, despite forcing plenty of corners, they couldn’t summon an equaliser.
Attentions now turn to next Monday’s home game against Leicester City, and Technical Director Hunter will be hoping that the injury suffered by goalkeeper Will Britt in the closing minutes at Leigh Sports Village isn’t too serious. Britt was carried off on a stretcher late on and was replaced by American gloveman Cody Cropper.
Manchester United: Ben Amos, Donald Love (Sadiq El Fitouri 65), Tyler Blackett, Phil Jones (Matthew Willock 60), Andy Kellett, Tom Thorpe (c), James Weir, Liam Grimshaw, Ashley Fletcher, Andreas Pereira, Adnan Januzaj.
Unused substitutes: Joel Pereira, Ben Pearson, Ro-Shaun Williams.
Yellow card: James Weir (57)
Goal: Ashley Fletcher (17)
Southampton: Will Britt (Cody Cropper 87) Bevis Mugabi, Josh Debayo, Alfie Jones, Ollie Cook, Jason McCarthy (c), Marcus Barnes (Josh Sims 76), Dominic Gape, Sam Gallagher, Jake Hesketh (Ryan Seager 76), Sam McQueen.
Unused substitutes: Will Wood, Jake Sinclair.
Yellow card: Alfie Jones (65)