Manchester United 1 FC Rostov 0 (United win 2-1 on agg)
Manchester United made it to the last eight of the Europa League with a stodgy performance against oddly defensive Russian opponents. A second-half goal from Juan Mata was enough to seal victory on the night, though considering Rostov started in a losing position thanks to Henrikh Mkhitaryan's away goal in the first leg it was surprising that they made so little attempt to chase the game.
It was not such a great surprise to see United make hard work of breaking down their disciplined defence, however, but though the result was satisfactory in the end a worry for José Mourinho was the sight of Paul Pogba limping off with a muscle strain.
United switched to a back three for the game, perhaps to match up with the Rostov system, though in reality the visitors began with something resembling a flat back five.
The home side had the first chance in less than five minutes, a Marcos Rojo header bringing a save from Nikita Medvedev after Daley Blind's corner, before Zlatan Ibrahimovic was presented with an opportunity through Mata's quick-thinking after Khoren Bayramyan had given the ball away. Briefly the striker was one on one with the goalkeeper, though he had been forced too wide for a shot.
Undeterred, Ibrahimovic took the ball round the stranded Medvedev and shot anyway, disdaining the option of Mkhitaryan arriving in the middle in favour of a waft over the bar from a narrow angle. Typical Ibrahimovic, one might say, though with 26 goals to his name already this season the striker is probably entitled to back his own ability.
Although Rostov had occasional excursions over the halfway line the game was quickly turning into a contest between United’s attacking ideas and their opponents’ packed defence. A goal was needed to change that dynamic, and there were claims for a United penalty when Medvedev appeared to push Mkhitaryan out of the way to make a punched clearance, though the referee was probably correct in surmising there was nowhere near enough force in the contact to send the forward flying through the air.
Mkhitaryan had the perfect opportunity to put his side ahead from open play a minute later in any case, but after doing the hard bit by beating the offside trap he chipped the goalkeeper and ended up missing the target. Ibrahimovic decided to go it alone again 10 minutes before the interval, again ignoring an unmarked Mkhitaryan in the middle in favour of an ambitious shot from the edge of the area, this time coming close to justifying his selfishness with a powerful drive that thumped against an upright.
Yet for all the home side’s evident superiority, half-time arrived with the game still goalless, and just the odd sign that United were beginning to get frustrated. While Pogba seemed particularly eager to impress after the debate on his usefulness that followed Monday’s defeat at Chelsea, his contribution here was mixed.
There were a couple of huge crossfield Hollywood passes that unerringly found their targets and won warm applause from his manager, yet the Pogba radar going forward was not as accurate. A long shot and a free kick both ended up high in the crowd before he finally found his range on the stroke of the interval, bringing a flying save from Medvedev with the last kick of the half.
That turned out to be all the crowd saw of United's record signing. Attempting a sprint a minute into the second half Pogba pulled up, briefly sat down in discomfort and was led straight down the tunnel, to be replaced by Marouane Fellaini.
While United were still in a comfortable position thanks to their away goal Rostov managed to show a signs of intent early in the second half with shots on target from Sardar Azmoun and Christian Noboa, both comfortably dealt with by Sergio Romero.
Possibly spurred on by the thought of how embarrassing it would be to concede a goal and lose the tie to a side as unadventurous as Rostov, United finally got their act together sufficiently to take the lead just after midway through the second half.
Ibrahimovic started the move, rolling the ball out to Mkhitaryan on the right then moving into the area for the return. All he got on the cross was a flick, but it was enough to find Mata at the far post and he was able to turn the ball over the line.
Perhaps a sign of how anxious United had become was that Marcus Rashford was waiting to come on at the time. Once in front, Mourinho told the substitute he could sit down again.
Rashford was waiting to come on again in the final minute of added time when Phil Jones gave away a free-kick. Christian Noboa hit a rasping shot from 25 yards and Romero made the save of the night with the last action of the game. If Rostov had done anything like that earlier, then they might have had United seriously worried.