Monday 11 December 2017

Mkhitaryan pitches in to give United 'a little advantage' in cold war

Rostov 1 Manchester Utd 1

FC Rostov's Timofei Kalachev tries to challenge Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Photo: Reuters
FC Rostov's Timofei Kalachev tries to challenge Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Photo: Reuters

James Ducker

Jose Mourinho will not know quite how much this gruelling assignment has taken out of his Manchester United players until he returns to Stamford Bridge on Monday for an FA Cup quarter-final against Chelsea but it was proof of just how energy-sapping the Europa League can be.

While it offers an alternative route to Champions League qualification, though, it is easy to understand why Mourinho continues to treat the competition so seriously.

Rostov's Christian Noboa and Manchester United's Henrikh Mkhitaryan battle for the ball. Photo: AP
Rostov's Christian Noboa and Manchester United's Henrikh Mkhitaryan battle for the ball. Photo: AP

On a lousy pitch in uncompromising weather conditions in south west Russia, this was never going to be a pretty game to watch.

In fact, for long periods, it made for downright ugly viewing, but United did what they had to and, much to Mourinho's relief after his condemnation of a playing surface that he felt posed a safety risk, there was no damage to his players beyond some very tired legs.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan put United in front in the first half on his welcome return from injury before Alexsandr Bukharov drew FC Rostov level soon after the restart but Mourinho's men will go into the second leg of this Round of 16 at Old Trafford next Thursday sporting an away goal and as firm favourites to progress to the quarter-finals.

Draining

FC Rostov's Timofei Kalachev in action with Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini. Photo: Reuters
FC Rostov's Timofei Kalachev in action with Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini. Photo: Reuters

Before then, they must face Chelsea, but as draining as this was, Mourinho vowed to field another strong line-up.

"We can't go to Stamford Bridge with a Nicky Butt team," the United manager said in reference to the club's U-21 side. "Manchester United is too big, it is the holders of the competition."

Mourinho likened this slog to some of the games he used to watch growing up - "Portugal League Two, amateurs, a real fight".

"It was impossible to play better, impossible to have the ball, impossible to play a passing game," he said. "So we played what the game demanded for us and we played well in difficult circumstances."

The statistics confirmed as much. United made just 219 successful passes, less than half of their average this season.

This was a case of digging in and digging deep and United were certainly made to do that by a Rostov side who grew in confidence and ambition after Bukharov capitalised on the away team's one glaring defensive error of the night to equalise.

If United win the Europa League this season, they will have done it the hard way. They have travelled 15,000 miles so far in the competition, and the playing conditions have invariably been onerous.

By the second half, United looked fatigued, but they are finding a way to get the job done. They have been beaten just once in 28 matches.

The pitch at the Olimp-2 was so hard that it was not too far removed from playing on concrete and it was compounded by strong, bitingly cold winds.

Mourinho is adaptable and ripped up his best laid plans in a bid to try to combat the conditions, switching to three at the back, his 3-4-2-1 system a throwback to the Louis van Gaal era. He knew the ball would be in the air a lot and that it was important to stymie Rostov's strength on the counter.

It is why he will have been so disappointed to see his side concede in such a cheap manner after nudging ahead 10 minutes before the interval. Timofei Kalachev picked up possession 50 yards out, nipped forward under no pressure and then floated a high ball into Bukharov that Chris Smalling and Phil Jones failed abjectly to deal with.

Bukharov had peeled off Jones and darted into the space behind Smalling, cushioning the ball beautifully on his chest with volleying past Sergio Romero.

In a game low on quality, Mkhitaryan's goal stood out. Marouane Fellaini muscled Kalachev out of the way to take Jones's floated pass on his chest and then play a nicely weighted pass into Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the bye-line. The Swede knew exactly where Mkhitaryan was and his tidy pull-back allowed the Armenian to power home.

Rostov had given United's 238 travelling fans red blankets to keep them warm but they were not so accommodating on the pitch as headers were contested and heavy challenges rained in.

But United still left with what Mourinho called "a little advantage" for the second leg.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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