After scoring his first goal for 28 games, initially leading by example as captain, Jesse Lingard faded all too fast as an embryonic Manchester United side capitulated to lose 2-1 to Kazakhstan champions Astana in the Europa League. It was another stark reminder of why he frustrates so many.
Whatever you think of his social media antics and his JLINGZ branding, nobody deserves the abuse that Lingard gets.
A tweet on Sunday after United’s draw at Bramall Lane got some of the nastiest responses yet – ‘fans’, from behind a keyboard, have made Lingard public enemy number one, with the vitriol so fierce Lingard admitted this week he will not read comments on social media anymore.
The more level-headed supporters are simply frustrated with Lingard’s decline in the last year. Last December, Lingard hit four goals in five games – including a double in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first game – and it seemed the England international would finally kick on and be a firm part of United’s revival under the Norwegian.
Since then, however, Lingard’s form has been below par to put it mildly, the midfielder coming into the trip to Kazakhstan with one goal and one assist in 2019, having not found the net since the end of January.
He has not played for his country in a year, while getting onto the pitch for United, even given their recent struggles, has been just as tough.
The 26-year-old’s chance came in the piercing temperatures of Nur-Sultan, the new name for the capital of Kazakhstan, as United looked to edge closer to securing top spot in Group L.
Everything is new in Nur-Sultan. Since being freed from the shackles of communism after the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhs have been able to bask in their new-found wealth having been sat on an abundance of natural resources for centuries.
Top to bottom shimmering glass skyscrapers look incongruous alongside the old soviet tenements, with monuments of continuing grand scale shooting up, regardless of the cost.
The Astana Arena, complete with fully retractable roof and synthetic pitch, is only ten years old, as is the Astana team itself.
The colossal hockey stadium next door is also less than a decade old, as is state-of-the-art velodrome, home to the Astana cycling team – who regularly perform well at the Tour de France, and once boasted Lance Armstrong in their ranks, pre-scandal of course.
And, against a team without a point in the Europa League this season, without four of their best players through injury, at the end of a gruelling domestic season – distances in Kazakhstan make Carlisle to Plymouth look down the road – Lingard was presented with the perfect opportunity to breathe new life into his United career.
The captain for the night led out the youngest-ever United team to take to the pitch in European competition, and it could not have gone better for Lingard early on.
His finish in the 10th minute showed the best of what he can offer, carrying the attack to the opposition before rifling an arrowing effort into the bottom corner.
Lingard was covering every blade of grass, taking it upon himself to always offer his youthful team-mates an outlet, and was at the heart of everything that was good about United in the first half. The armband, in fact, seemed to bring the best out of him.
Cruising at 1-0 up with 55 minutes gone, United’s young players were looking assured, inspired by their proud Mancunian captain, with Astana appearing weary.
When Luke Shaw squared the ball to Tahith Chong at the far post early in the second half, with an open goal at his mercy, United looked set to put the game to bed, but the 19-year-old’s miss proved to be the catalyst for another United collapse, as seven minutes later the game was lost.
Astana’s equaliser was a fine finish, but what proved to be the winner was poor from a United point of view, as one of the other senior players – Shaw – who looked well off the pace all game, was beaten far too easily down the flank before a low cross eventually went in off young defender Di’Shon Bernard.
There was nothing Lingard himself could have done to prevent the goals, but after Astana’s quickfire double, Lingard hit the self-destruct button once more, and disappeared into obscurity.
He had to be restrained by Axel Tuanzebe in the aftermath of Astana’s winner, as it appeared he wanted to vent his frustrations on United’s young defenders, something Tuanzebe was not going to allow.
There were kicks out in petulance against the opposition, while his attacking output diminished, with it left to Mason Greenwood and Angel Gomes to muster any form of response from United.
Of course it was in difficult circumstances for Lingard, but as the senior player, given a chance to shine, he cannot let the disappointing elements in his game take over.
This was an Astana team who were beaten 11-0 by AZ Alkmaar over two Group L games – and yet Lingard was nullified with ease.
“I thought he was excellent today, led by example with loads of energy and drive,” Solskjaer said after the game. “It was a really great goal and he has been really good in the whole trip.
“It was good to have Jesse back on the pitch.”
Kind words indeed from Solskjaer, but spoken like a man knowing full well his midfielder needs geeing up, at an important juncture of his career.
Almost 27, there may not be too many more chances for a man who needs to arrest the decline, and fast. A new manager could certainly see him as a possible revenue generator when reshaping the squad – time for more of the first-half Lingard from Astana, and less of the fading force.
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