Manchester United were held to a 1-1 draw by FC Rostov at the Olimp-2 Stadium in the round-of-16 first leg in the UEFA Europa League on Thursday

Manchester United were back in European action on Thursday night as they made the long trip to Russia to take on FC Rostov at the Olimp-2 Stadium in the first leg of the Round of 16 in the Europa League.

And despite being held to a draw, Jose Mourinho’s side grabbed the all-important away goal heading into the return leg next week. Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored that vital goal midway through the first half as he converted a fantastic move from close range after latching on to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s pass.

However, chances came few and far between for large parts of the match for either side and Ibrahimovic shot over the crossbar early on in the second half, just before Aleksandr Bukharov neatly scored past Sergio Romero after meeting Timofei Kalachev’s inch-perfect lobbed pass to equalise for Rostov.

Few clear cut chances were created beyond that point as both sides struggled to string two passes together consistently. The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at the talking points to emerge out of the 1-1 stalemate played out by Manchester United and FC Rostov on Thursday.

Pitch Not Quite Perfect

A lot was made out about the state of the pitch in the build up of the game, with Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho criticising it and lodging a complaint with UEFA about the patched-up surface. The Portuguese tactician opined that it was more of a field and not a pitch suitable to play European football on.

And not long after the referee blew his whistle for kick-off it wasn’t hard to see why Mourinho and the Manchester United camp were so vocal about the poor condition of the pitch. The ground was hard as a rock and it was easy to see how big of a nightmare it was for the players to play on it.

Players from both Manchester United and Rostov struggled to string together a series of passes, forcing them to take a more direct approach by playing long balls for large parts of the match. In fact, the visitors attempted 87 long passes, and had a dismal passing accuracy of 61 per cent – their lowest this season.

As a result, the match didn’t make for an attractive spectacle, and Jose Mourinho insisted that he was happy with the result as it was “impossible to play better”. Keeping that in mind, Manchester United have done well to come out of the game with a vital away goal and no injury concerns.

The Importance of Europa League For Mourinho

Mourinho had maintained in the initial stages of the campaign that the Europa League was a tournament that Manchester United didn’t particularly want to play in but would give it their all in every match they play.

It was a sign that the Manchester United boss would lay more emphasis on other competitions, in particular the Premier League, over Europa League. But as we slowly advance to the latter stages of the second-tier European competition, it is beginning to look like Europa League has become a priority for Mourinho.

That can be judged by his team selections in the matches against Saint-Etienne and Rostov. Mourinho has regularly chosen to play key figures like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Ander Herrera and others instead of opting to rest them for a top 4 battle.

With Manchester United sitting sixth and facing an uphill battle to qualify via finishing in the top 4 in the Premier League, it is not hard to see why Mourinho is looking to go all out to win the Europa League for the second time in his career, as it could prove to be their best hope of qualifying for the Champions League.

Mourinho Dishes Out A Back-Three

Thursday night also saw Mourinho surprise many when the teams were announced, and it was not because of an out-of-the-blue selection. Instead, it was the formation that the Manchester United boss chose to start with that got people talking.

Perhaps, the pitch had something to do with Mourinho’s decision to shake things up, but it was definitely a shocker when Manchester United lined up with a back-three, with Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo as the central defenders.

The move did work for large parts of the match as Rostov barely created any clear cut goal scoring opportunities, and it was only when Jones was caught napping when the hosts managed to make a mark on the game.

But could it be that Mourinho was trying the system out in preparation of the game against Chelsea? Mauricio Pochettino famously made the formation work when Tottenham beat the Premier League leaders in January, and if Manchester United can restrict the chances on Monday as well, they could have a good chance to trump the Blues in FA Cup.

Mkhitaryan’s Impact

Henrikh Mkhitaryan has slowly established himself as a fundamental figure in Jose Mourinho’s plans this season, after initially struggling to break into the side. That is apparent whenever the Armenian international is on the pitch for the English giants, as well as off it.

Mkhitaryan scored the only goal in the return leg against Saint-Etienne last month, but was forced to miss the two subsequent matches owing to a hamstring injury he picked in France. And his absence was dearly felt in both games as Manchester United struggled to carve out goalscoring chances consistently.

The Armenia captain was back for Manchester United on Thursday, and he made an immediate impact for the side, as he was a menace for the Rostov defenders to deal with. Mkhitaryan regularly lost his marker in attack and got into dangerous goalscoring spaces.

And it was during one such run that he scored the opener in the match, as he arrived late into the box after Zlatan Ibrahimovic combined with Marouane Fellaini to break the deadlock. Mkhitaryan has scored four goals in his last seven games, and it goes without saying that his form and fitness will be crucial for Manchester United for the remainder of the season.

A Fresh Zlatan – Rostov In Trouble?

Jose Mourinho confirmed in his pre-match press conference on Wednesday that Zlatan Ibrahimovic would start the match against Rostov, and that is likely to be the case for the return leg as well.

That is because the Swedish striker has been handed a three-game domestic ban, almost making him an automatic selection for the second leg at Old Trafford next week. If anything, the ban is now set to work in favour for Manchester United.

That is because the ban will ensure that Manchester United’s talisman will be kept fresh and will have his sole focus on the Europa League for the time being to take the Red Devils into the quarterfinals of the competition in the return leg next Thursday.

The Swedish superstar has been in menacing form all through the season, and he is by far the top scorer for Manchester United this season. One can only imagine how dangerous a well rested Ibrahimovic will be when Rostov come visiting to Old Trafford next week when he’ll be raring to go once more on the field.

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