SINGAPORE: Almost 18 years to the day Ole Gunnar Solskjaer nodded home Manchester United’s opener in front of an adoring Kallang crowd, the baby-faced assassin was back in town and gunning for another pre-season victory.
While there would be no 8-1 romp against a Singapore Select side and he would be in the dugout rather than on the pitch, some things still hadn’t changed for Solskjaer.
After all, the stakes stayed small, the weather remained warm, and Red Devils continued to be red-hot on and off the pitch.
From the enthusiastic die-hards screaming at the team’s hotel upon their arrival to the fickle fair-weather ones baying for blood during the season gone by, all were present and accounted for as Manchester United beat Inter Milan 1-0 on Saturday (20 July), courtesy of a Mason Greenwood goal.
Not only did the Red Devils edge the Nerazzurri, they set a new Singapore Sports Hub record attendance of 52,897.
The previous record for a football match? An impressive 52,107 when rivals Arsenal beat Everton 3-1 in 2015.
In a stadium more used to seeing swathes of red empty seats rather than red football kits, Manchester United’s fanatical following meant that more than an hour before kick-off, the cavernous Sports Hub began to fill.
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Manchester United jerseys, Singapore jerseys, and even a brave, confused duo in Liverpool T-shirts and Red Devils scarves, the allegiances were mixed but the motivations were the same – to catch the likes of David De Gea, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford in action.
They swarmed the nearby Kallang Wave Mall like ants, circumnavigated the stadium like troops, and queued outside its gates like Singaporeans.
The swirling transfer rumours added to the intrigue: Would Romelu Lukaku swapping his kit for his opponents’? Could Paul Pogba be engineering a move away?
With new signings Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James also likely to play a part in the game, there was an undeniable buzz in the air.
The mere sight of the lanky Michael Carrick striding out onto the turf pre-warm up elicited warm cheers.
Inter’s arrival wasn’t met with such joy though, with lusty boos ringing from the stands – a sliver of blue wasn’t enough to drown out the partisan Singapore crowd.
Even legendary Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar bore the wrath of some, after proudly declaring pitchside he hoped Inter – his former side – would win.
With Solskjaer starting a strong side, it was the Red Devils’ duo of Pogba and Nemanja Matic dictating the tempo right from the beginning, teasing and toying, spraying passes to stretch the Inter backline.
But Antonio Conte’s rearguard held firm, as neither side failed to register a notable shot on target after 15 minutes.
That came 10 minutes later, as a dipping Rashford shot was easily saved as eager cries of ‘Shoot!’ rang out.
An adventurous foray forward by fullback Luke Shaw was the closest Man U would come in the first 30 minutes, but his fizzing ball across was met by nothing but groans from the local fans.
As fireworks from the National Day Parade rehearsal painted the distant cityscape, the Red Devils attempted to ignite some of their own sparks on the pitch.
First, pacy James came close in the 36th minute but could only screw his shot wide. Four minutes later, a Samir Handanovic save kept Inter in the tie as he denied Anthony Martial.
There was even time for off-pitch action at half-time, as a proposal in the stands drew loud cheers from the crowd – the couple were Manchester United fans of course.
A searing start to the second half saw Man United come agonisingly close – first through a Matic header off the bar, then a toe-poked Pogba shot pushed away by Handanovic.
With Solskjaer changing his whole squad with 30 minutes left to play, there was one particular change greeted by boos – Ashley Young.
But the veteran didn’t let that faze him and proved a point several minutes later by turning provider for fellow substitute Mason Greenwood.
Young’s inswinging freekick from the wing was only parried into the path of the youngster, and he finished with deft aplomb.
The new-look Red Devils continued to press and shaggy-haired Tahith Chong was the catalyst. His slick dribbling and exquisite passing causing Inter – in particular centre-back Martin Skrinar, a number of problems.
The shrill blast of the final whistle brought a final round of raucous applause as the game came to a close – it might have been friendly in name, but to the partisan Singapore crowd, it was clearly anything but.