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Starting XI: FC Astana vs. Manchester United

A very young Reds squad makes the longest European trip in club history

Manchester United v Partizan Belgrade - UEFA Europa League - Group L - Old Trafford Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images

Manchester United travel to frigid Kazakhstan for another Thursday night in the Europa League. Here’s everything that you need to know ahead of the match.

(1) On Sunday, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side labored to a 3-3 draw at Sheffield United. After a disastrous first half, the Reds mounted a spirited comeback and briefly pulled in front at 3-2. Poor defending at the death, though, handed the hosts a lifeline and the match ended all square. A point may seem a fair reward considering the abysmal performance early on, but it doesn’t do much to move United closer to the top four.

(2) In fact, United now find themselves sandwiched between the two underachieving London clubs — Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur — in the Premier League table. Spurs made their big move last week with the appointment of José Mourinho as head coach, setting up the December 4 match at Old Trafford as an important one in the race for a Champions League spot.

(3) Manchester United’s recent win over Partizan Belgrade really pays off here. With passage to the Europa League knockout rounds already secured, Ole and his staff don’t have to drag the entire first team halfway across the continent for this midweek match. Sure, the Reds could clinch the top spot in Group L with a win (and dropped points by AZ Alkmaar), but keeping the squad healthy and rested for the Premier League is a far bigger priority.

(4) In fact, Sky Sports reports that Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna will remain in Manchester to train the first-team regulars who won’t be traveling. Nicky Butt will accompany Solskjaer in their place, perhaps hinting at a very young squad made up of academy players. The likes of James Garner, Tahith Chong, Largie Ramazani, Ethan Laird, and Dylan Levitt could all be in contention.

(5) As if a 6,000 mile roundtrip for a relatively meaningless Europa League group stage match wasn’t bad enough, current forecasts call for temperatures in Kazakhstan to plunge as low as -20℃ (-4℉). Astana Arena does have a retractable roof to protect players from the elements, but that comes with having to play on an artificial pitch. From every angle, the conditions will be less than ideal on Thursday.

(6) FC Astana remain winless in Group L, so United should have little trouble no matter the weather, pitch, or traveling squad. Besides the massive talent disparity, Astana also face a motivational challenge. The Kazakh Premier League ended earlier this month and they’re just playing out the string in Group L. This is a team without anything to play for — and with one eye on the offseason.

(7) Still, it’s been a successful season for FC Astana. Roman Hryhorchuk’s side won their sixth consecutive KPL title, though they haven’t played competitively since the league finale on November 10. This might be a dead rubber for Astana, but at least they’ll be well rested.

(8) In the first meeting at Old Trafford, Manchester United won 1-0 thanks to a Mason Greenwood second-half strike. But the match was far closer than expected. In FC Astana’s last two Europa League games, though, they lost to AZ Alkmaar by a combined 11-0 scoreline. Whatever resistance the Kazakh champs showed early on looks to be long gone.

(9) Greenwood has got to start. He scored again at the weekend, taking his season tally to five. Not bad for an 18-year-old fresh out of the academy. Greenwood has scored in all four senior competitions this season, including a strong return of four goals and one assist in cup matches. Solskjaer started him in three of four Europa League matches and, with every appearance, Greenwood looks more and more like a future superstar. And that future might not be far off.

(10) On the injury front, Luke Shaw and Nemanja Matić could be ready for a return. Both are back in training, but do the conditions in Nur-Sultan really make for the ideal way to ease them back into action? Probably not, although the larger question is which left-back does Solskjaer prefer for the Aston Villa match this weekend. If the boss picks Brandon Williams for Sunday, then Shaw could play at FC Astana. Or we could be in for ninety minutes of Ashley Young.

(11) Manchester United have not yet conceded a goal in the Europa League. That’s a far cry from their weekend performance at Bramall Lane, though a big chunk of that blame should be aimed at Phil Jones. Assuming Ole will rest Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf in central defense, Axel Tuanzebe should be in line to start on Thursday.