There is only one team in Manchester left in a continental competition, and manager Jose Mourinho and his side now have a quarterfinal to look forward to. The Europa League is looking to be Manchester United’s likeliest route back into the Champions League, and they advanced, not in a manner to justify their billing as the tournament favourites, but having negotiated another obstacle in the form of Rostov.
United remain on course to win two trophies and play 64 games this season. If they do both, this may be among the more forgettable evenings. It at least illustrated the enduring importance of Juan Mata, who went unused as United exited the FA Cup to his former club Chelsea and then turned match winner on his return.
United failed to turn 78 percent possession and 12 shots into a lead in the first half Thursday. Mata provided the breakthrough via a goal that was not a one-two, but a one-two-three. Mata won the ball back and, via Zlatan Ibrahimovic, found Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armenian crossed, the Swede got a slight touch with an attempted flick, and Mata was on hand for the tap-in. It meant that belatedly, United have two players in double figures for goals this season.
Until then, it had been an evening of frustration for Mkhitaryan. The first-leg scorer ought to have had a penalty when goalkeeper Nikita Medvedev shoved him in the back. Mkhitaryan almost exacted revenge with a delicate dink over the Russian, but it just missed the far post.
The fact that United made such heavy weather of it was all the more surprising as Rostov could name only four substitutes. It was an indication of their priorities that the first-leg scorer, Aleksandr Bukharov, began on the bench. With Aleksandr Gatskan and Timofei Kalachev banned, Rostov started without three of those who impressed last week.
At least one selection brought more intrigue. Nicknamed “The Iranian Messi,” Sardar Azmoun had been a surprise exclusion from the side in Russia. He had enhanced his reputation with Champions League goals against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid. He almost added another with a Messi-esque dart infield and whipped left-foot shot that diving keeper Sergio Romero parried. It was Rostov’s first attempt of note and then, strangely, he was substituted.
It betrayed a lack of ambition, although Romero had to save well from the substitute Bukharov. For all Rostov’s defensiveness, they could have taken the tie to extra time.
Not for the first time, Paul Pogba has spent a week in the headlines. Criticised for his display against Chelsea, but branded the game’s best player by Mourinho, who accused the player’s doubters of envying his sizable salary, an eventful few days continued, albeit in a way that may remove Pogba from the limelight for a while.
The problem materialised 45 seconds after the break. Pogba pulled up while accelerating past Denis Terentyev and limped off. If there is no good time to lose the Frenchman, this may be a particularly bad one. Ander Herrera was already suspended for the games against Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion. Now the other automatic choice in midfield appears a major doubt for the trip to the Riverside.
It suggests Mourinho may have to try a partnership of Marouane Fellaini and the oft-overlooked Michael Carrick on Teesside. Even Bastian Schweinsteiger may get on the bench Sunday, when Ibrahimovic is also banned.
It actually gives Mourinho a reason to persevere with his decidedly different formation. For only the second time as United manager, he began with a back three, something that seemed anathema to him in both of his spells with Chelsea. A 3-4-3 formation has the advantage of requiring only two central midfielders — just as well, since United is running short of them — and, with all his central defenders fit, Mourinho can staff the defence more easily. As fine a season as Antonio Valencia has had at right-back, he is a more natural wing-back, and the overlapping Ecuadorian excelled. Yet if Daley Blind seems well-suited to the role on the opposite flank, his injury-enforced departure brought the strange sight of Phil Jones operating at left-wing-back.
It must have made painful viewing for Luke Shaw, omitted from the squad again on the day he secured an England recall.
In the end, Ibrahimovic got everything but the goal. He ended with an assist. He struck the woodwork twice. He mounted a one-man assault that did not quite yield a personal reward, but was enough to secure progress.
It was unsurprising that he seemed particularly fired up. A player accustomed to having a winter break now has a different calendar, as international breaks afforded some chances for rest/recuperation and a domestic suspension another chance. This will be his last game until April 4, the elbow he planted into Tyrone Mings at least meaning Ibrahimovic was fresher than those who had chased the ball with 10 men against Chelsea. A constant until then is temporarily confined to the Europa League.
He was prominent from the start. Ibrahimovic struck the post from an acute angle after Medvedev parried Marcos Rojo’s header. Eleven minutes later, having rounded the keeper and then cut back because the angle was so acute, Ibra’s attempted curler was tipped over by Medvedev, sprawling at his feet. Then Ibrahimovic was denied by the upright again on a ferocious strike. He headed over, too, before his attempt at a flicked finish brought Mata’s breakthrough.
It came in fitting fashion. Some of his combination play with Mata was excellent. United had a fluent front three with the Spaniard and Mkhitaryan orbiting around Ibrahimovic. Not for the first time, Mourinho may feel his side merited more goals. Not for the first time, Ibrahimovic’s radar was not fine-tuned, but he still found a way to contribute to the victory.
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