United exited the FA Youth Cup on Thursday, losing 3-2 to Chelsea in the third round. But it could all have been so different after controlling the first half.
Paul McGuinness' boys took the lead through Ravel Morrison, but United were unable to make the most of first-half chances and Chelsea ultimately capitalised.
McGuinness was able to call on Danny Welbeck, who celebrated his 18th birthday this week. The Longsight-born striker has made inroads into the Reds first-team, but he was back on Academy duty at Old Trafford and had the first opening after just four minutes. Oliver Norwood’s through-ball set him racing clear, but he took a fraction too long to decide that he wanted to round Niclas Heimann rather than shoot and the Chelsea keeper collected the ball.
But it didn’t take long for United's early domination to pay off. Four minutes later England schoolboy international Ravel Morrison, still only 15 but already making waves in the U18s, latched onto another throughball. His first touch was excellent and the chipped finish beat Heimann despite the German goalkeeper getting a hand to the ball.
The Reds, clearly unfazed by playing at Old Trafford, put together some excellent intricate football, with Morrison and Welbeck integral in attacking areas and central midfield pairing Norwood and Matty James pulling the strings.
Morrison should have scored a second just after the half hour mark. He brilliantly rounded the keeper and one Chelsea defender but tried to beat a third man instead of shooting. He recovered to lay the ball off for James, whose shot was cleared off the line, then Morrison fired over the rebound.
United had looked comfortable all half, but somehow Chelsea went in at the break in front. Gael Kakuta struck first on 43 minutes, poking his past Gary Woods, then Frank Nouble smashed in a second from 20 yards.
Chelsea had looked ordinary in the first half an hour – perhaps they were overawed by the big stage – but they became stronger as the game progressed. They hassled and harried the Reds, whose rhythm and composure was disrupted. But United weren’t giving up. The Reds cranked up the pressure with 15 minutes remaining when a sweeping move across the edge of the Chelsea area ended with James being denied twice by Heimann with a third shot rebounding off his legs and going wide.
With 11 minutes left Welbeck wriggled free in the area but his flicked shot went narrowly wide. Unfortunately, as United pushed forward, Chelsea again struck on the counter attack when Fabio Borini fired past Woods.
The Reds pulled a goal back when Welbeck poked in United's second after good work down the left from substitute Nicky Ajose. But, despite a late flurry from the Reds, Chelsea had already got the goals to ensure victory.
Manchester United: Woods; Tunnicliffe, Wootton, Gill, Dudgeon; Morrison, Norwood (Petrucci 73), James, Brady (Stewart 33); Welbeck, Macheda (Ajose 82).
Subs not used: Devlin (GK), Strickland.