DOHA, Qatar — As two Manchester United fans walked into Old Trafford ahead of the Carabao Cup tie with Aston Villa before the World Cup, one of them began reading out the team. When he got to the substitutes he listed Alejandro Garnacho and Anthony Elanga, but was stopped in his tracks after mentioning Facundo Pellistri.
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The interruption came in the form of a question loaded with genuine surprise: “Is he still here?” But after zero first-team appearances in more than two years at the club, it’s perhaps not a surprise Pellistri has become so forgettable.
The 20-year-old winger has been missing in Manchester since his £9 million move from Penarol in October 2020 — helped along by a recommendation from former United and Uruguay striker Diego Forlan — but in Montevideo it’s a different story. He made his full international debut for Uruguay against Paraguay in January and when it came time for coach Diego Alonso to name his squad for the 2022 World Cup, there was little doubt he would be included.
Indeed when the team was named for Uruguay’s first game against South Korea on Thursday, Pellistri was in it — picked on the right-hand side of the front three alongside Luis Suarez and Darwin Nunez — and played 88 minutes of the 0-0 draw before being replaced by Gullermo Varela.
But regardless of how well Pellistri does in Qatar, it’s likely he will leave Manchester United on loan in the January transfer window. After spending time on loan at Alaves during two separate spells since arriving in England, sources have told ESPN he was set for another temporary move in the summer only to suffer an ankle injury during a preseason friendly against Atletico Madrid in Oslo in July. Negotiations with a number of English Championship and Spanish LaLiga clubs were immediately halted while Pellistri underwent rehabilitation work which kept him out until September.
Since his return to full fitness, he’s been named on the bench by Erik ten Hag eight times, and eight times he’s been overlooked when substitutions have been made. His official involvement for United so far this season stands at 66 minutes in an EFL Trophy group game in front of 2,966 fans at League Two Barrow.
It has reached the point that there is already a debate about whether he will ever make it at United, particularly after Ten Hag said in October that the player still needs to “convinced” him.
“We have young players in the background in the offensive positions, quite good competition there,” said the Dutchman. “They have to battle for it and to convince us and to convince me they deserve to be in the team, so he’s one of the options.”
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Sources have told ESPN that Pellistri has been so desperate to impress that he regularly asks United coaches Darren Fletcher, Steve McClaren and Benni McCarthy to stay behind after training to put on extra sessions. McCarthy is working specifically on his shooting while teammates Bruno Fernandes and Lisandro Martinez have also helped him out.
Pellistri has also taken on extra gym work, having realised he was too lightweight to thrive in English football and staff, according to sources, have been impressed with how hard he’s worked despite never playing.
United, though, already know all about his discipline after he spent a week sleeping at Penarol’s training ground ahead of his move to Old Trafford to ensure his transfer wasn’t scuppered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Once he arrived, and with restrictions in the UK still in place, he was only allowed to travel between United’s Carrington training ground and his apartment. United were, at one point, worried he might get homesick but all check-ups were greeted with a smile and a thumbs up.
Pellistri was so popular during his two loans with Alaves that when United arranged to use their training ground after the Europa League tie with Real Sociedad earlier this month he was greeted like a club legend and brought extra United shirts in his suitcase to hand out to their staff.
After his 88 minutes for Uruguay against South Korea, Pellistri has already made more World Cup appearances than he has for United. Preseason goals — one against Derby County under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and another against Liverpool in Ten Hag’s first game in charge — raised hopes that the winger, who will turn 21 two days after the World Cup final, might have a bright future at United, but it’s now 781 days and counting without a senior appearance. Though he won’t have to wait long for his next game for Uruguay: against Portugal and his friend, Fernandes, at the Lusail Stadium on Monday.
It’s not unusual for players to hope the World Cup acts as the stage to earn a dream move to a big club. Pellistri has already made his dream a reality, but he still needs to impress in Qatar if he is to persuade Manchester United that his long-term future lies with them.
Why Uruguay’s Facundo Pellistri is ignored by Man United