Manchester United cruised past Partizan Belgrade to reach the knockout stages of the Europa League with two games to spare.
First-half goals from Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial were followed by a powerful finish from Marcus Rashford after the break to complete United’s biggest home win since August.
The result keeps Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men top of Group L. Victory in their final match against AZ Alkmaar on 12 December will ensure a top seeding in the last 32, no matter what happens when they go to Kazakhstan to play Astana in three weeks.
They are the only side in the competition not to concede a goal this season. It also extended their unbeaten run in the Europa League to 15 matches, three short of Chelsea’s tournament record of 18.
It wasn’t all good news for United, though. Scott McTominay hurt the inside of his right foot in an innocuous challenge and although the Scotland midfielder tried to continue, he had to be replaced by Jesse Lingard 15 minutes from time.
Manchester United’s Europa League group campaign could hardly be described as exciting as it passed its halfway point.
They had scored two goals in their first three games and not had a shot on target in open play since a left-footed effort from Jesse Lingard in the final minute of the first match against Astana at Old Trafford on 19 September.
A crowd bolstered by nearly 1,000 noisy Serbs only had to wait eight minutes for that run to come to an end as Juan Mata found Rashford with a short pass, only for Vladimir Stojkovic to make a close-range save.
By that point, both sides had been denied a goal by an offside flag, which would have been a relief for Harry Maguire given it was his attempted clearance that looped over Sergio Romero off Umar Sadiq.
United’s eventual seven shots on target was a figure they have exceeded only three times in all competitions this season.
A month before the season had even started, Solskjaer spoke of his belief that Greenwood would score plenty of goals this season.
It has subsequently transpired that United were asking rather a lot of a player who did not even turn 18 until 1 October.
This was his 12th appearance out of 17 games in a campaign where he has also been an unused substitute on three occasions. The manner in which he took his 21st-minute goal, stepping inside after receiving an excellent pass with the outside of his foot from Rashford, then sliding a shot under Stojkovic, hinted at a maturity beyond his years.
It was his third goal of the season, a number bettered only by Rashford and Martial at United this season, and it is worth noting that he is doing so at an age when Rashford, a teenage England international, had not even made his senior debut.
If Greenwood’s contribution needs to be accepted as a bonus at Old Trafford this season, Martial has to be a central figure.
In Wednesday’s pre-match news conference, Solskjaer raised an eyebrow when he said there were two sides to the France forward and that when he was in a good mood his presence on the training ground was great but horrible when he was in a bad one.
The same could be said about his on-field contribution, which was neatly encapsulated in the space of a couple of minutes here.
Martial’s brilliant first touch to get the ball under control on the edge of the box, then the balance that took him past Strahinja Pavlovic and Bojan Ostojic inside it, were sublime. The right-footed finish was exactly what such skill deserved.
Yet, on United’s next attack, Martial sprinted clear of the Partizan defence and faced with a stranded Stojkovic way off his line, sent his chip sailing into the stand behind the goal.
In the context of this game, the failure meant nothing, but it is precisely the type of bread-and-butter chance Solskjaer has been working on with Martial since he arrived at the club last December.
It has not been a bad run of results for United since the last international break but only one of their four victories has come in the Premier League.
Indeed, they have now won four times in six cup games this season compared to three triumphs in 11 league fixtures, underlining why they go into Sunday’s game against Brighton in 10th spot, two points behind their visitors and an incredible 18 adrift of leaders Liverpool.
Manchester United are next in action against Brighton, at Old Trafford, in the Premier League on Sunday (14:00 GMT).