This was a convincing win secured with a sprinkling of class from Manchester United and there have not been enough performances like this under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to turn your nose up at the fact it came in the Europa League.
It was a night to focus on the positives, to cherish them and let the confidence flow in a team that has spluttered and coughed its way through so much of the season. For the first time in weeks, United look in a healthy condition again.
The fact it came against a Partizan Belgrade team who sit fourth in the Serbian League does not matter for now. Having decided to pick a side that looked close to full strength for the first time in Europe, Solskjaer was rewarded with an impressive victory and, perhaps more importantly, an attacking display that led to almost total domination of their opponents.
It was as free flowing as United have played, as an offensive force, for months.
“We needed a win, but we needed a performance in which the boys wanted to play forward, to run forward, to score more than one goal,” Solskjaer said.
“We could have had loads more tonight. We expect to win at home against teams like Partizan, and we should have buried it in the first 10 minutes, but we were comfortable at 2-0 and it was a good performance.”
This was a team selected to get the job done; to secure the victory that would make sure of qualification for the knockout stage with two games to spare and ensure senior players can be rested against Astana – few will be keen to make the nine-hour journey to Kazakhstan – and for the final home fixture against AZ Alkmaar.
This was a chance to make a statement, to put on a display that showed United, at full strength, are good enough to win this competition. That is what they delivered, even if it did not start well.
Partizan very nearly took the lead, Harry Maguire’s awful pass playing in Seydouba Soumah, who moved possession on to Umar Sadiq. The Nigerian, on loan from Roma, had strayed marginally offside before the ball looped over the head of goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
United were comfortably the better side after that and should have taken an early lead, Marcus Rashford missing two simple chances. The first was a shocker. Picked out by Aaron Wan-Bissaka, unmarked, 10 yards out, he put a first-time shot wide. The second was little better, found by Juan Mata’s pass, an unconvincing finish that was easily saved.
Solskjaer had urged his strikers to “fill their boots” against the Serbians. Rashford looked as though he was playing with them on the wrong feet, putting another volley, when unmarked inside the area, into the stand.
The best strikers might fail to take one, possibly even two, of those chances, but they would have buried at least one of them. Rashford’s upturn in form cannot mask the fact he is still not clinical enough.
At least he was involved in the opening goal. A surge of pace took him past three Partizan players, before he poked the ball in behind for Mason Greenwood to finish superbly with the sort of composure Rashford had lacked.
United needed the second goal and got it when Anthony Martial scored a stunning solo effort, dancing his way into the area, evading two desperate challenges and then poking the ball into the bottom corner. Skill, balance and composure. It was a touch of class.
United were enjoying themselves and Martial might have scored another immediately, lifting the ball over the goalkeeper and crossbar when one-on-one. Rashford then missed another, similar chance, a heavy final touch making things easy for the goalkeeper.
But this was so much better from Solskjaer’s side, albeit against opponents they were expected to beat. They looked a threat every time they went forward and finally Rashford got his goal, smashing his hardest chance of the evening into the top corner. It was a stunning finish at the fifth time of asking.
There were other notable contributions. This was arguably Martial’s brightest game of the season, Scott McTominay – who picked up a knock late on – and Fred played well in the centre of midfield, while Greenwood has become the youngest United player to score and assist a goal in a European tie. The hype around this young man is starting to look very real.