Manchester United ended their wretched 11-match winless run on the road as Anthony Martial’s spot-kick secured a hard-fought victory played out to a hostile backdrop at Partizan Belgrade.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer kicked off his reign with a club record nine successive away wins, only to endure a remarkable 33-week wait stretching back to March’s jaw-dropping Champions League triumph at Paris St Germain.
No longer at the continent’s top table, the Europa League provided the platform for their first victory on the road since then, with United digging deep amid Partizan pressure – from both players and their unrelenting fans – as Martial’s first-half penalty secured a 1-0 triumph.
It was a welcome return to winning ways at a poignant setting as Partizan Stadium hosted United’s final match before the Munich air disaster on a refuelling stop on their way back from Belgrade.
Club officials paid respect to the 23 killed on the morning of a game that saw Partizan fans stream backing into a stadium after serving a two-match UEFA sanction for racist behaviour.
It led to understandable concerns of a repeat of the shameful scenes in Bulgaria last week, but this Group L encounter appeared to pass without any such behaviour as United got back to winning ways – albeit not in the most convincing fashion.
Jesse Lingard and former Rangers man Umar Sadiq hit the woodwork in quick succession during an even first half that United would snatch the lead in, with Martial converting the penalty won by the direct running of Brandon Williams.
It capped a promising display by the 19-year-old on his second senior start and fellow teenager James Garner held his own in a hostile environment, but Solskjaer’s side rode their luck in Belgrade.
Savo Milosevic’s men pushed throughout the second half but were just unable to level.
This occasion was an assault on the senses, with the home fans producing a continuous racket as smoke hung in the air at the dilapidated Partizan Stadium.
United looked unmoved by the atmosphere early on. Harry Maguire, wearing the captain’s armband for the first time, should have done better when shrugging off a marker and Scott McTominay headed just wide at the far post after meeting a 15th-minute free-kick from Juan Mata.
The visitors were struggling to create chances from open play and the scrappy battle was giving the hosts hope, with Garner halting a Seydouba Soumah-led attack before former United winger Zoran Tosic fizzed wide.
Play swung from end to end as the first half came to a conclusion. Lingard hit the post in the 37th minute after Aaron Wan-Bissaka superbly won the ball on the edge of the Partizan box, only for Sadiq to soon rattle the woodwork at the other end.
The hosts had several attempts immediately after, only to get caught out by United’s directness.
Mata sent a lovely curled pass into the path of scampering Williams, who burst towards the byline and drew a foul out of Nemanja Miletic. Referee Xavier Estrada Fernandez pointed to the spot and Martial sent the goalkeeper the wrong way.
That 43rd-minute goal was the only shot on target either side mustered in a first period that made way for an intense second-half performance by Partizan.
Bibras Natcho struck a free-kick wide and fans were incensed that Phil Jones was not called for a penalty, before Soumah put Maguire on his backside and forced a save out of Sergio Romero.
Tempers frayed as referee Fernandez denied two penalties in quick succession as the match entered the final third with the Crno-beli on top.
Sadiq tried his luck from distance and Jones was forced into a last-ditch challenge as the home onslaught continued, with Takuma Asano and Natcho having attempts as United’s backline just managed to hold firm.
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