Facundo Pellistri’s thrilling debut nutmeg made Paul Scholes swoon
There are infinitely worse places to make your first Manchester United start than Seville on a gorgeous spring evening.
With the orange trees blooming, Cruzcampo flowing and temperatures around 20 degrees warmer than shivering Manchester, United walked out to defend their three-goal lead over Real Betis with Facundo Pellistri in their starting line-up for the first time.
The youngster moved to Old Trafford in 2020, but only made his first-team debut – as a late sub in the League Cup win over Charlton – back in January.
Blessed with fearless dribbling and the kind of cheek normally associated with the Artful Dodger, Pellistri has made several more impressive cameo appearances since.
Nottingham Forest filled Pellistri’s boots with concrete before their League Cup semi, but still ended up lumbering after him like farmhands weighed down by bales of hay.
And, in the first leg against Betis, the Uruguay international set up Wout Weghorst’s moment of catharsis, bursting past defenders like he’d been shot out of a canon before arrowing the ball into his team-mate’s path.
United named a strong side at the Estadio Benito Villamarin, but it was Pellistri that shone brightest throughout their 1-0 win. The 21-year-old brushed the post with one first-half effort and regularly left Betis defenders grasping at thin air.
Fear of further embarrassment is perhaps why Betis left Pellistri with a country estate’s worth of space to receive the ball after the interval.
Edgar Gonzalez reluctantly hurried across to douse the impending flames ahead of time, but Pellistri took him out of the game with an audacious nutmeg.
As Gonzalez impotently looked on, the United winger dashed into the penalty area and was only denied a shot at goal by a brilliant last-ditch tackle from Miranda.
“He is going to be an asset,” Paul Scholes told BT Sport viewers afterwards. “With [Alejandro] Garnacho being out, Antony is ill as well, he will be a real asset.
“Not just from the bench but starting games too. It was a tough European away game, especially away in Spain. So for his first full start, I thought he did very well.
“He has not played a lot of football, but I thought he was quite lively going down the outside. He put a couple of crosses in early on that he possibly over-hit, but the whole team was like that, to be fair. But I thought he was a real threat.
“He was the one looking to create and the one looking to be dangerous. He is very direct and I don’t think we will see any fancy stuff from him.
“He will be direct, go towards goal, try and cross the balls for forwards in the box and get shots at goal. I thought, overall, he was just alright.”
Erik ten Hag echoed those comments, saying: “I think he deserved to come in. “He had a good training performance, you see him progressing, getting stronger, good game against Leeds, against Betis.
“To start is more difficult, we have seen that, but when the game goes on he came in and got belief. You see his abilities, he had some good dribbles, good runs in behind, and some good crosses, defending, he did his job.
“So I am pretty pleased with his performance. For him, it is a step up. Now it’s up to him, to get rhythm and contribute to the team.”
If his debut proper is anything to go by, expect to see Pellistri become an integral part of the United squad from now on.
By Michael Lee