A result that included an invaluable away goal gives Manchester United every chance of a last-eight berth and smelling the Europa League glory José Mourinho has spoken of.
This was a niggly encounter and so the manager’s team ended it with mission accomplished, ensuring Rostov will have to produce the best result of their 87-year history to knock United out.
For an away leg in which the visitors would hope to at least score Mourinho made seven changes. Of the side that drew 1-1 with Bournemouth at the weekend only Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Paul Pogba, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic survived.
The charm offensive from Russia’s seventh-placed club had the 238 travelling fans furnished with blankets to keep warm on an evening in which a biting wind came in off the Don River.
Beforehand Mourinho offered dismay at the Olimp-2 surface. Before kickoff he said: “We don’t want to speak about the pitch now, it is not time for that, Rostov are a strong side. They played well with their style of play, five at the back and three in front, they are well organised. They are difficult opponents.”
Yet as the game started the manager’s view was vindicated: the pitch was a tricky combination of high bounce, uneven turf and loose soil that could scatter whenever a pass was made. Ivan Daniliants, Rostov’s head coach, stated it would be a “problem” and his side set out to profit from this. The opening exchanges featured a series of aerial balls aimed at Chris Smalling, Jones and Rojo, United’s three centre-backs in Mourinho’s 3-5-2.
Clumsy challenges were also on show as Jones was hit by Aleksandr Bukharov and Vladimir Granat was hurt when Henrikh Mkhitaryan went for a cross in Rostov’s area. This caused the defender’s withdrawal – for Denis Terentyev – and a little later Mkhitaryan drew a booking for hanging an arm on to Fedor Kudryashov. It caused fellow central defender César Navas to have a word with Mkhitaryan which in turn brought Ibrahimovic on to the scene.
All of this illustrated the ill-tempered start and more came when the home captain, Aleksandr Gatskan, was also shown a yellow card by Felix Zwayer after the referee saw him take out Ibrahimovic.
As the half hour approached there had not been a surfeit of any real action. Rojo blocked a Bukharov cross and when Timofei Kalachev swung the subsequent corner in from the left Sergio Romero collected this cleanly. For United Pogba had earlier fashioned an air shot from near in on Nikita Medvedev’s goal.
Now, though, the visitors scored and this was worth the 35-minute wait. A fluid move began when Pogba turned infield and found Jones. He swept the ball on a right-left diagonal to Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian’s first touch was a sweet bit of chest control that took him past a marker and when he recycled possession to Ibrahimovic the Swede’s pass to Mkhitaryan allowed the No22 to beat Medvedev with ease.
This had Mourinho punching the air to celebrate Mkhitaryan’s seventh of the season and third in the competition. From this juncture until the break United suffered close to zero threat to Romero’s goal as they coasted into half-time having protected their lead.
Mourinho and his men, then, could be pleased with a fine opening 45 minutes in front of a raucous home crowd who had packed out the 15,000-seater venue. The trick now was to leave with the victory and set up next week’s return leg at Old Trafford. When the second half began Ibrahimovic had a first go at doubling the lead when he scampered across the 18-yard line with the ball and let fly a shot but the No9’s aim was wild.
Each time the yellow shirts came at United the backline of Rojo, Smalling and Jones had held firm. But, then, on 53 minutes it was breached. Kalachev chipped the ball in from a central area and Bukharov slipped in behind Jones and Smalling and gave Romero no chance with a smart strike.
This sent the Rostov support delirious and raised the volume up to 11 again. When Aleksandr Erokhin raced into United’s area and was challenged by Smalling he went down but though the home crowd bayed for a penalty Zwayer indicated the captain took the ball and nothing was awarded.
Moments later Erokhin was handed a clear chance to give Rostov the lead. But all he could manage was a toe poke that started wide of Romero’s right post and kept on going in that direction. Next up was a rare United corner taken by Blind and which met Fellaini’s head but this went only into Medvedev’s hands.
Mourinho’s first move was to replace Mkhitaryan with Anthony Martial with 68 minutes gone. Given the former’s earlier booking and his recent hamstring injury this may have been to protect a player who has become pivotal to the Portuguese. Daniliants answered this by taking off the scorer, Bukharov, for Sardar Azmoun, who has been dubbed the Iranian Messi in these parts.
But there were no heroics from the 22-year-old as United ensured they returned home as favourites to progress into the quarter-finals.