Mata finish sees nervy Reds limp into last eight
Manchester Utd 1 FC Rostov 0
Jose Mourinho talked in an interview last night about walking into a "sad club" last May and how, even 10 months on, "we are not ready to be Manchester United, not ready to be a dominant force".
"There is a space between the general ambition of such a giant club and what we are in reality," the United manager said.
Anyone who watched United crowbar their way into the Europa League quarter-finals against a spirited but limited Rostov will understand what he means.
Convincing this was not, the night following a similar theme to many at Old Trafford this season, with United carving enough chances to put the game to bed in the first half but that familiar wastefulness leaving them vulnerable in the second period.
An uncomfortable finish was summed up by the sight of Phil Jones playing the final half-hour at left wing-back and United, ultimately, were indebted to a few very good saves from Sergio Romero to keep the Russians at bay either side of Juan Mata scoring in the 70th minute.
And to add to United's woe, Paul Pogba hobbled off with a hamstring injury.
Still, with the club sixth in the Premier League and facing a battle to finish in the top four, this competition may represent United's best route back into the Champions League next season.
The draw in Nyon today is unlikely to throw up too much for Mourinho to be concerned about, with Celta Vigo, 11th in La Liga, and Genk, seventh in Belgium's top tier, among the sides they could face.
Mourinho says he is playing "the other way round" to how he did at some of his past clubs, where he admitted the priority was "being safe, being in control and waiting for the mistake, I bite you, goodbye", but added that he would not experience "complete pleasure" at United until they discover a ruthless streak.
In fairness, luck shied away from them in an opening period when Rostov parked the bus.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan should have been awarded a penalty after being pushed in the back by Nikita Medvedev, the Rostov goalkeeper, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic was unfortunate to see a blistering drive cannon back off the inside of the far post.
Ibrahimovic also hit a post from close range and Mkhitaryan should have done better when released by a wonderful first time pass on the half-volley from Mata only to clip his shot wide of a post as Medvedev advanced.
Mata and Antonio Valencia bullied Rostov down United's right, with the Spaniard cutting inside to good effect, but Pogba blew hot and cold again, flunking one free-kick and overhitting a simple pass to release Daley Blind but also forcing a good save on half-time.
That would be about the sum of Pogba's contribution. A couple of minutes after the restart, the Frenchman pulled up holding his right hamstring and had to be substituted.
Having been flogged this season and recently shown signs of fatigue as a consequence, it is probably no surprise Pogba's body finally gave way.
A rest, in truth, may be no bad thing for him, time to recharge his batteries after a troubled spell, even if Mourinho will hope his absence is short-lived.
Rostov had offered little going forward. They were missing the suspended pair of Timofei Kalachev and Aleksandr Gatskan and found Mourinho's 3-4-3 formation a relative handful but, dogged and disciplined, they remained in the game.
And when Sardar Azmoun drew a fine diving save from Sergio Romero in the 54th minute it was a reminder to United of the perilous nature of the scoreline.
Moments later came another warning, with Christian Noboa drilling a shot at Romero.
Having got to the hour mark in just the position they would have hoped, Rostov began to up their tempo. Aleksandr Bukharov, their scorer in the first leg, was introduced and only a terrific block from Eric Bailly prevented Romero from being called into action to deal with Dmitri Poloz's thumping drive.
United eventually got the breakthrough they craved when Ibrahimovic sprayed the ball out wide to Mkhitaryan before flicking the Armenian's cross into the path of Mata to tap home.
Even then only an excellent save from Romero to deny Bukharov prevented this tie from going to extra-time.
Not ready to be Manchester United? Mourinho is right on this evidence. (© Daily Telegraph, London)