Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s kids slumped to defeat on Manchester United’s furthest and coldest ever European adventure as debutant Di’Shon Bernard’s own goal sealed Astana’s comeback win in Kazakhstan.
With progress to the Europa League knockout phase already assured and a frantic domestic fixture schedule to juggle, young prospects and players needing minutes made the 6,000-mile round trip for the Group L dead rubber.
United had never travelled so far for a European tie and stand-in captain Jesse Lingard put their youngest ever side for a major continental match on course for victory in Nur-Sultan, only for already eliminated Astana to rally and seal a famous 2-1 win through Bernard’s own goal.
This match was not without positives and would have been a challenging trip even for an experienced group, given the six-hour time difference, distance travelled and temperatures reaching -22 degrees Celsius outside the roofed Astana Arena.
But Solskjaer will no doubt be frustrated by the way his side let a strong start slip after Lingard’s first goal in 10 months, especially as things would have been so different had Tahith Chong not missed an open goal moments before Dmitri Shomko’s superb leveller.
Bernard inadvertently sealed previously pointless Astana a stunning win on a night that saw United give out six debuts, with an outfield starting line-up average age of just 20 years and 221 days.
Even with 36-year-old goalkeeper Lee Grant making his first start, the overall average was just 22 years and 26 days.
Considering the mixture of inexperience and rustiness, Solskjaer’s side equipped themselves well during a bright start.
Mason Greenwood stung the palms of the goalkeeper and by the 10th minute, the visitors were ahead.
Luke Shaw, making his first appearance since August, played in Lingard to rifle a low shot into the bottom right-hand corner from 20 yards, leading to cheers from all four corners of the ground.
The skipper was keen to add to his first goal since January, hitting narrowly wide having just blazed over following good work by Ethan Laird – impressing on his debut like Dylan Levitt.
Astana flickered into life midway through the first half and Dorin Rotariu wasted a glorious chance when ghosting behind the sleepy United backline, while Grant comfortably denied Abzal Beysebekov soon after.
Lingard saw a shot deflect over and Greenwood irritated team-mates by ignoring them to take a hopeful shot, with the teenager then irking the home fans by chipping Astana goalkeeper Nenad Eric with play halted for offside.
But Astana were proving a handful and pushed for a leveller after the break, with sloppy play nearly resulting in Bernard putting a clearance into his own goal.
United were just about holding firm and had a gilt-edged chance to put the game to bed in the 55th minute.
A smart one-two with Angel Gomes ended with Shaw turning and firing the ball across the six-yard box, where unmarked Chong somehow scooped over at the far post.
It was a dreadful miss that proved the evening’s turning point.
Astana’s leveller had been coming and it was a strike that Shomko will treasure, hitting a low effort past Grant.
United had little chance to restock by the time the perennial Kazakh champions were celebrating again, with debutant Bernard directing a cross into his own net at the near post seven minutes later. Axel Tuanzebe helped the devastated debutant to his feet.
Ineffective Chong soon made way as D’Mani Bughail-Mellor made his United bow, with Astana continuing to look the bigger threat and Runar Mar Sigurjonsson just missed the chance to score a stunning strike against the club he supports.
Astana keeper Eric pulled off stunning saves to deny Gomes’ free-kick and then Greenwood as United fell to defeat on an evening that ended with Largie Ramazani and Ethan Galbraith coming on for their debuts.