Fireworks ignited outside the closed Linzer Stadion marked the beginning of a last-16 tie that may not be completed next week due to coronavirus. The disease is causing more and more sport to be suspended so when Manchester United will hope to seal passage to the quarter-finals is unclear.
Here, though, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side did what was needed, turning in a professional performance, cruising to victory before the smattering of Lask fans allowed entry, whose side did pose an occasional threat despite operating on a budget roughly analogous to a League Two team.
“For us, it counts [even if competition is suspended], because to see the improvement of the team, the players – its vital enough,” Solskjær said. “It [the empty venue] makes it easier to get the instructions on the pitch but of course it’s weird and a strange feeling.”
Victory also takes United to 11 matches unbeaten, equalling their best run under the Norwegian, the previous streak coming at the start of his incumbency. Solskjær chose Odion Ighalo to replace the injured Anthony Martial and the Nigerian repaid the manager with a fine opener. This was his fourth strike in eight United appearances and the manager suggested his loan move may be made permanent.
“Odion has done really well – we need those qualities for next season so let’s see,” said Solskjær, who went on to suggest the unsettled Paul Pogba, absent here, could also remain at the club beyond the summer. “Paul is our player and has got two years left on his contract – a year and the option of another year, so you can expect Paul to be here, yes.”
Bruno Fernandes again led the way, trotting forward with the ball during the early exchanges and teeing up Fred, though the Brazilian blazed over. Next he won a free-kick with a slick flick-and-pirouette around an opponent. It yielded nothing and when Lask moved forward the visitors were turned for a first time.
Klauss sprinted in behind Harry Maguire along the right went down but Artur Dias, the referee, ignored the penalty shouts. Despite this United were in control. A quick move that featured Brandon Williams to Ighalo down the right had the latter’s cross mis-hit by Juan Mata. Fernandes collected and fed Luke Shaw and when he put the ball in this time Mata drew a corner. Fernandes took it but Scott McTominay could not score with his header.
United were warming up. The faster passing play that Fernandes has ignited since his winter transfer was behind a Daniel James snapshot that the goalkeeper Alexander Schlager saved well to his left. When Ighalo was signed on loan in January there was derision in some quarters. These naysayers had already been silenced by his three goals in seven appearances but the fourth suggested his arrival may prove a minor masterstroke: the ball arrived on the edge of the area at pace but following a mesmerising juggle he hammered in off the bar to leave Schlager with no chance.
“He had three touches and the fourth was the finish,” his manager said. “All those touches were high quality, but he had to make them to give himself the space and the strike is on the half volley, great timing. No one would have saved that one.”
While two over-enthusiastic United fans were ejected after breaking into the stadium, the home support nearly had an equaliser to cheer when the ball broke to Dominik Frieser near Sergio Romero’s goal. The forward’s attempt looked to be heading in before Eric Bailly blocked.
The half closed with United still in the ascendancy. Another pinpoint Fernandes corner deserved a better header from Maguire. But Solskjær’s half-time chat seemed simple: telling his side to sharpen up in front of goal to make the contest comfortable.
First up was a Lask free-kick, though, after Shaw was booked for felling Dominik Reiter. Peter Michorl took it but United’s wall did its job. Valérien Ismaël’s team pressed, but United were able to roll the ball around until Shaw was in position down the left. He hit Mata but the No 8’s first-time effort sailed over.
A dimension Ighalo offers is the outlet ball and how he killed a high pass and twisted before spraying possession wide to Williams was a fine illustration. Next he turned creator, helping James to break a six-month drought by finding the Welshman, the latter’s long-range strike his fourth of the season. Moments later, Ighalo might have scored again but hit the right-hand post, Fernandes’s vision again releasing the striker.
In the closing stages United added three more. With eight minutes left Mata finished clinically after Fred played him in with a glorious through-ball. In added time Tahith Chong put in Mason Greenwood, who smashed in via both posts, and there was still time for a fifth as Ander Herrera’s speculative long-range effort was fluffed in by Schlager to complete a satisfying night in Austria’s third city.
What happens next for United in the Europa League is unclear. This may be their last action for a while.