Odion Ighalo has gone from strength to strength since his move to Manchester United was complicated by the coronavirus outbreak in January, so how appropriate that he was the man to light up this Europa League tie on a silent, soulless night in Linz.
In a match played behind closed doors in the battle to contain the global pandemic, Ighalo put United on course for a comprehensive win with the opening goal – and what a goal it was.
The Nigerian didn’t have many options when Bruno Fernandes burst forward in the 28th minute and flicked the ball to him on the edge of the box.
Manchester United took the lead just before the half-hour mark through a stunning strike from Odion Ighalo
Ighalo juggled the ball three times to create some space on the edge of the box before firing a half-volley in the top corner
Daniel James then ended his goal drought to double United’s lead by driving a right foot effort into the bottom left corner
Ighalo juggled it with one, two and then three touches before meeting it on the half volley. The ball flew off his left foot and in off the underside of the bar with LASK goalkeeper Alexander Schlager rooted to the spot.
It was the boyhood United fan’s fourth goal for the club since joining on loan from Shanghai Shenhua. Critics questioned why United would sign a 30-year-old ex-Watford striker, and even more so when his arrival from China meant that he couldn’t join his new teammates on a warm-weather camp in Marbella or even train at Carrington for the first week.
But Ighalo is proving them wrong and there was no doubting the quality of his goal here.
‘He had three touches and the fourth was the finish,’ said manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. ‘All those touches were high quality, but he had to make them to give himself the space. The strike is on the half volley and great timing.
‘No-one would have saved that one, so anyone would be proud of that finish. Odion has come in really well and he will only get better.’
Daniel James scored his first goal for Manchester United in 33 games and his first since since August 31 last year
It was a goal deserving of a bigger stage and certainly more people here to see it.
As it was, there were just 500 in total inside the Linzer Stadion as part of the Austrian government’s attempt to limit the spread of the virus on a night when other Europa League fixtures in Seville and Milan were postponed.
Daniel James’s first goal in 33 games and late strikes from Juan Mata, Mason Greenwood and Andreas Pereira confirmed a United win that effectively guarantees them a place in the quarter-finals if UEFA don’t suspend the entire competition before next week’s second leg at Old Trafford when it meets on Tuesday.
It was a shame that LASK’s so-called ‘match of the century’ had to be played out in such a way, but United did a professional job.
This was their biggest away win in a knockout match in Europe since 1965, the same year that LASK won the Austrian title.
Fred’s incisive pass allowed Juan Mata to roll in a third as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men looked to have the tie wrapped up
The night began with a minute’s silence for Heribert Trubrig, a veteran of that team, and was followed by 90 more on a night that couldn’t have been more removed from some of United’s great occasions in Europe.
‘It was a strange feeling,’ said Solskjaer. ‘We are used to playing in front of the best fans in the world helping the boys. We haven’t practised this before – it’s a weird one.’
United only had Ighalo’s goal to show for their domination in the first half after Scott McTominay and Harry Maguire headed wide from Bruno Fernandes corners.
But they went further ahead in the 57th minute when Ighalo fed James who ran at Gernot Trauner and cut inside the LASK skipper before drilling a shot inside Schlager’s right-hand post to register his first goal since August.
Ighalo hit the post following an exquisite flick from Fernandes before Mata exchanged passes with Fred and scored the third.
Mason Greenwood then added a fourth after Tahith Chong sent him clear before beating Alexander Schlager at his near post
Tahith Chong then provided the pass for United’s other young substitute Greenwood to beat Schlager at his near post in added time.
If that wasn’t exactly a blunder by the LASK keeper then United’s fifth most certainly was.
Pereira was brought down 30 yards from goal and picked himself up to take a quick free kick to Fred. He got the ball back and tried his luck with a shot that slipped through Schlager’s grasp and into the net.
Pereira had come on as a 78th minute substitute for Fernandes who was instrumental in another fine United performance here.
Andreas Pereira then confirmed the hammering after a Schlager blunder saw the Brazilian beat him from 30 yards
The prospect of United’s new £68million signing playing alongside Paul Pogba is intriguing as the Frenchman nears his comeback from ankle surgery.
In a week that Sportsmail revealed that Pogba is open to signing a new contract at Old Trafford, Solskjaer confirmed he will be at the club next season.
‘Paul’s our player and he’s got a year plus an option, so you can expect Paul to be here,’ said the United boss.
United now head to Tottenham on Sunday after extending their unbeaten run to 11 games – including eight wins and nine clean sheets – equalling their fine start when Solskjaer took over as caretaker 15 months ago.
Whether it has extended their involvement in Europe this season remains to be seen.
And Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could afford a smile as his side are now unbeaten in their last 11 games in all competitions