For many Manchester United fans the biggest game left for the club this season hasn’t actually been given a date and kick-off time.
If the first team have been an almost weekly let-down for United followers, the youngsters have been a rare ray of sunshine in a campaign as grey as an overcast day in Manchester. United’s Under-18s have reached the Youth Cup final for the first time in a decade and the final, a one-off game at Old Trafford against Nottingham Forest, is a fixture to look forward to.
It certainly feels more exciting than today’s home game with a doomed Norwich City and United’s hopes of a top-four finish are now slim to nonexistent. By next weekend they will probably be over.
The vicious response United’s players got as they trudged past the Goodison Park away end last season revealed the level of disappointment that is reserved for that squad now. A season that promised so much has been an unmitigated disaster.
But Travis Binnion’s youngsters have at least managed to light up at Old Trafford and while they will be determined to finish the job against Forest, a few of them might also be hoping for some grander exposure before the end of the season. United’s growing injury list and the sense that this campaign is now essentially over should certainly open the door to some opportunities across the final seven games of the season.
The primary beneficiary that United fans want to see – and they may get their wish after he was named in the squad to face Norwich – is 17-year-old Alejandro Garnacho and the winger is clearly an exciting prospect, though a number of Neil Wood’s Under-23 group could also be given a chance. Hannibal Mejbri has been an unused substitute five times in 2022 but his chance must surely be coming soon, while the injury that will keep Luke Shaw out of the remainder of the season should open the door for Spanish full-back Alvaro Fernandez.
The 19-year-old left-back has played plenty of football this season. He started six of the seven Youth League games, all three EFL Trophy fixtures and 21 Premier League 2 games, as well as training with the first team very occasionally. Signed from Real Madrid in 2017, Fernandez is highly-rated at the United academy as an attacking, modern full-back. In the win against Chelsea at Old Trafford for United Under-23s last week, he played as a wing-back and was a constant threat to the opposition defence.
In those appearances at academy level this season, Fernandez has found the back of the net four times and created six more, so he’s clearly very dangerous in the final third, while his defensive work has impressed as he’s stepped up in age-group football. It’s unlikely the Spaniard will be part of the first-team squad next season, with a loan move the likeliest option, but as this season winds down he could get a chance to impress potential suitors and experience his first taste of senior football.
With Shaw out it is Alex Telles who will fill the void and with a top-four finish still theoretically on the line, the Brazilian can expect to start all three games over the next week, against Norwich at Old Trafford today and then on the road against Liverpool and Arsenal. But if United failed to find the form to get themselves firmly back in that race for Champions League football then it is worth Ralf Rangnick giving some youngsters a bit of game time.
That’s when Fernandez could be involved, even if it’s only some minutes from the bench. He already has Real Madrid and Manchester United on his CV and the teenager has represented Spain Under-19s this season, so some first-team football cannot be far away.