Solskjaer’s reaction to Anthony Elanga shows the Manchester United academy have done it again

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The final day of the season can often be football’s equivalent of New Year’s Eve, a case of out with the old and in with the new. Unless titles or relegation is on the line it’s usually a day for fond farewells or exciting new introductions, a script Manchester United stuck to at Molineux.

It was always going to be a much-changed team that made the journey down the M6 and the side that showed 10 changes from the draw with Fulham included a sprinkling of youth and some older heads.

In the former category was Anthony Elanga, the 19-year-old winger making just his second appearance for the club. At 14 years his senior and making his 272nd United appearance was Juan Mata. It summed up the fun of the final day when there is nothing riding on it that Elanga produced a performance that hinted at a bright future and Mata got what looked like a farewell goal.

His contract expires next month and while there has been no confirmation that he is leaving, the passion with which he celebrated converting the penalty to restore United’s lead on the stroke of half-time suggested this was the end of the road for Mata and United.

For Elanga the journey is only just beginning. On his first start for the club he found the step-up to first-team football hard going. On this evidence, he’s a quick learner. He took his goal superbly and looked every inch a Premier League player in the making, another potential star rolling off an increasingly impressive academy production line. As the final whistle blew Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made a beeline for an exhausted Elanga, his beaming smile showing his delight at the teenager’s performance. With Shola Shoretire and Hannibal Mejbri coming on late on this was a good day for the academy.

United only had the benefit of making these changes because of the hard work over the previous 37 games of the campaign in wrapping up a runners-up finish. As Chelsea and Liverpool can testify, leaving it to the final day to land your ambitions is fraught with peril. All that United had to play for at Wolves was an unbeaten season on the road, something they achieved despite the 10 changes and the return of home fans. It’s a record Solskjaer has been keen to downplay, but they are the fourth team to achieve it in top-flight history.

Even with a place in the record books on the line Solskjaer was always going to make changes at Molineux, with the Europa League final in Gdansk just around the corner. He was unhappy to see La Liga bring the final day of their season forward 24 hours to help Villarreal, while the Premier League offered no such help to United. That’s a valid and well-worn complaint, given the Premier League’s record at helping the preparation of their teams in Europe, but even if this trip to the Midlands had been on Saturday, it wouldn’t have changed the team Solskjaer picked.

His selection here made his intentions for Wednesday night pretty clear, although one of the central defenders in action will be starting the final. That duel between Axel Tuanzebe and Eric Bailly has tightened up in recent weeks, but Tuanzebe will have breathed a sigh of relief when his sloppy pass inside the first couple of minutes only resulted in Adama Traore dragging a shot wide.

That early effort bought roars of encouragement from the 4,500 home fans inside Molineux, supporters fired up at the chance to give Nuno Espirito Santo a fine farewell on his final game in charge of Wolves.

They could have been silenced by one of United’s young guns, with Elanga relishing the chance to play in front of a crowd, even if it wasn’t his own. He just failed to bring down Alex Telles’ fine diagonal into the penalty area then showed quick feet to create a yard of space in the area but slapped a left-footed shot over the bar.

He made it third time lucky after Telles and Daniel James worked the ball smartly down the left. James’ cross was fizzed into a dangerous area but Elanga’s desire to meet it with a diving header was a showcase of how desperate he was to make an impact, having struggled to impose himself against Leicester City.

But then came Mata’s moment. Donny van de Beek had been a bright presence and his quick feet in the Wolves box bought the challenge from Roman Saiss and after a lengthy VAR check Mike Dean awarded the penalty. Mata sent Rui Patricio the wrong way and his passionate celebration – with every United player except Henderson joining in – told its own story. It looked like a farewell.

It certainly deserved to be a winner and while United had to dig in during the second half, Henderson barely had a save to make. Bailly and Tuanzebe both pressed their claims to start in Gdansk and Van de Beek enjoyed his best game yet in a defensive midfield role.

It could have been more comfortable for United as well. Amad’s through ball sent James away, but his finish was awful with only Rui Patricio to beat, while Amad himself stung the palms of the Portuguese goalkeeper.

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