Five things we learned as Manchester United earned a valuable draw on Rostov's atrocious pitch
FC Rostov held Manchester United to a draw in the first leg of their Europa League last-16 tie in Russia, but Jose Mourinho's side did grab a valuable away goal.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan put United in front with a close-range finish following some good build-up play by Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Rostov however equalised in the second-half through forward Aleksandr Bukharov, who latched on to Timofei Kalachev's pass, to ensure that it is all to play for in the second-leg next week.
Here are five things we learned:
1. Mkhitaryan is increasingly influential
It was a gamble for Mourinho to start the in-form Armenian forward, with the player still recovering from the hamstring injury that ruled him out of the EFL Cup final.
It was a gamble that paid off. Ibrahimovic did a fine job with his back to goal, of holding up the play and swapping passes with Marouane Fellaini, but Mkhitaryan was their real attacking threat, impressing in a central role and repeatedly darting in behind Rostov’s defence.
He took his goal with confidence and, given his goal-scoring form, it’s amazing to think that he made such a slow start to life at Old Trafford. He will be key for United in their next two Premier League matches as well as the FA Cup quarter-final against Chelsea, which Ibrahimovic is suspended from.
2. Mourinho was right about the pitch
Mourinho was ridiculed by some quarters of the press after his angry assessment of Rostov’s pitch on Wednesday. But the manner in which the surface quickly cut up — vehicle tracks easier to spot than patches of green — justified his less than impressed reaction.
The terrible surface meant watching this became something of a struggle as both sides struggled to string more than a few passes together. In the first-half, United’s passing accuracy stood at just 65.37%: the lowest it has been all season.
Mourinho will have watched the match through his fingers as his players slipped all over the pitch, although the only team to suffer any injuries were Rostov, with the defender Granat substituted early on with a shoulder complaint.
3. United impress with a three-man defence
Playing against a highly physical team on the kind of surface a Sunday League team would have turned their nose up at, Jose Mourinho resorted to playing a back three against Rostov – one of the few occasions in his career when he has switched to the formation.
Since Chelsea switched to a 3-5-2 in September they have played some utterly sublime football under Antonio Conte: Mourinho’s reasons for abandoning his favoured 4-2-3-1 were a little more pragmatic.
United frequently went direct, Ibrahimovic doing an excellent good job of holding the ball up for Mkhitaryan. And at the back they looked largely robust. Mourinho will have been disappointed at the manner in which Bukharov squeezed between Smalling and Jones but all things considered, he will be pleased that his team restricted Rostov to just the one goal.
4. Rostov right to leave Azmoun on the bench
“Could Rostov's Azmoun be Iran's Zlatan Ibrahimović?” the official Uefa website purred ahead of this match. BT commentator Darren Fletcher went even further, referring to the player as the 'Iranian Lionel Messi'.
But, surprisingly, Rostov manager Ivan Daniliants kept his prodigiously talented 22-year-old forward on the bench until the 70th minute. Ultimately, it was the right call. The man that started in place of him, the experienced Aleksandr Bukharov, scored with a wonderful volley, and proved a handful for United’s defence all night.
Azmoun eventually came on to replace him and was greeted with a rapturous reception from the Olimp-2 crowd, but had limited chance to impress. The striker, who has recently been linked with a move to Liverpool, will hope for a longer chance to show what he can do in the return leg next week.
5. Russia’s supporters eager to impress
After the horrific scenes between Russian and English supporters that marred Euro 2016, the Russian authorities were on something of a charm offensive for United’s long-trip to Rostov.
Russian police saw the Rostov trip as their first opportunity to engineer cordial relations and, thankfully, the match passed without major incident.
250 hardy United supporters made the 4,000 mile round-trip. As well as getting a valuable away goal, they also received a free blanket to keep them warm from Rostov. Here’s hoping the 2018 World Cup passes in equally cordial fashion.
Independent News Service