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24th Oct 2018

On a day Manchester United looked to the past, Mason Greenwood fired a reminder of what lies ahead

Simon Lloyd

The defender’s pass had been careless.

Intercepted, Manchester United’s number eight immediately sprung to life, three quick touches with his left foot nudging the ball towards the edge of the penalty area. With black-and-white striped shirts swiftly closing in on him, another touch with his left shifted it across his body and on to his other foot. Now just inside the Juventus box, he calmly rolled it beyond the goalkeeper, clipping the inside of post as it found its way into the goal.

In truth, 17-year-old Mason Greenwood had been relatively quiet for the opening half hour of United’s latest UEFA Youth League at Leigh Sports Village. But here, in the four seconds between gaining possession and applying the finish, came a perfect example of why there’s so much excitement building around the youngster. The pace, the close control, the cool-headedness in front of goal – all combined to devastating effect.

United have always done what they can to shield their young talents from excessive media attention. It’s still club policy that youth players below the age of 18 are not permitted to speak to the press and interviews given to the their official website or MUTV – the in-house television channel – are extremely rare. Despite this, the last 18 months have made it impossible to ignore the rise of Greenwood.

The Bradford-born forward, who signed his first professional contract at Old Trafford earlier this month, was eligible to play for United’s Under 16 side last season. He finished it as top scorer for their Under 18s, scoring 17 goals from 17 starts. He ended the campaign by picking up the Player of the Tournament Award as United won the ICGT trophy in the Netherlands in May, scoring the winner in the final against Real Madrid.

The impressive regularity with which he scored goals in 2017/18 saw him earn a call-up to Jose Mourinho’s senior squad for the pre-season tour of the United States. Though his playing time was limited to substitute appearances in America, his inclusion on the tour said plenty about how highly he is regarded.

This season, he has continued where he left off. His goal against Juve’s youngsters (a game which United eventually won 4-1) was his 14th of the campaign already, having scored in both of United’s previous Youth League outings against Young Boys and Valencia.

On its own, his goalscoring record might be enough to suggest Greenwood is destined for the very top. To say that his ability to find the net is his only obvious quality, however, would be inaccurate.

Equally adept with either foot, Greenwood demonstrated his versatility against Juve by playing part of the first-half in a central role and splitting the rest of his time between the right and left flanks. There were glimpses, too, of trickery – the Zidane-like pirouette he used to effortlessly manoeuvre himself away from two opponents drawing loud applause from the crowd. To say he’s just a fleet-footed youngster with an eye for goal is only part of the story.

Clearly, even though he already appears too good for the age group in which he is playing most of his football, it’s premature to talk about a step up to the first team just yet. Tahith Chong, who would have played in the Youth League game had he not been included in Jose Mourinho’s squad later in the day, is two years Greenwood’s senior. Even now, with United’s current woes, this shows he will have to be patient before being given an opportunity.

Tuesday was a day where the gap between Manchester United and the very best European football has to offer was brought into sharp focus by the manner of Juventus’ senior side’s victory at Old Trafford. While most of the pre-game narrative centred on the return of one of the best players in United’s past, Greenwood’s goal earlier in the day serves as a reminder that even now, there is still cause for optimism about what lies ahead.