On a rare start, the diminutive Mata scored a priceless winner to take United into the quarterfinals!
Manchester United beat FC Rostov 1-0 in the second leg of their UEFA Europa League round-of-16 tie on Thursday to progress to the quarterfinals 2-1 on aggregate, but the victory came at a steep price as two United players came off injured in the second half.
United manager Jose Mourinho is treating the second-tier continental competition very seriously and perhaps that is why, with the exception of goalkeeper David de Gea, the Red Devils trotted out in a very strong 3-4-3 formation.
The first leg had ended at 1-1 with United sluggish on the questionable FC Rostov pitch but at Old Trafford on Thursday, looked confident and dangerous from kick-off.
Moving the ball around without any trouble, the hosts first real chance came off a slick move but Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s chip over Rostov keeper Nikita Mdevedev was just wide a minute before the half-hour mark.
The Armenian winger was playing alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Juan Mata with the likes of Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera for support from midfield. Antonio Valencia and Daley Blind were playing as wing-backs as United looked to bombard the visitors with a unrelenting wave of attacks.
Minutes after Mkhitaryan came close to breaking the deadlock, Ibrahimovic sent in a thundering shot which cannoned off the post with Medvedev well beaten. While the shot from inside the box was impressive, the Swede could have squared it for an unmarked Mkhitaryan at the far post but selfishly, chose to shoot.
United were desperate for a goal before the interval and Pogba went close in injury-time but his left-footed curler was well saved by Medvedev to ensure the teams went in at the break with nothing to separate them.
That shot turned out to be Pobga’s last contirbution of note to the game as minutes into the second half, he pulled his hamstring and had to be replaced by Maruoane Fellaini. Pobga, who has hardly been injured in his career so far, perhaps had not recovered from the FA Cup quarterfinal against Chelsea on Monday night.
As things stood, United would go through on the away goals rule but a warning shot was fired by the visitors in the 53rd minute when Rostov striker Sardar Azmoun beat Marcos Rojo on the edge of the box and let loose a powerful left-footed shot. United goalkeeper Sergio Romero justified his inclusion into the side with a brilliant flying stop to save United’s blushes.
As full-time approached, a goalless draw looked likely with United unable to test Medvedev and to make matters worse, Daley Blind suffered a head injury in the 64th minute and Phil Jones had to replace him.
United weren't to be denied, however, and as Juan Mata made a vital interception on the halfway line, the Red Devils surged forward. Mata played it to Ibrahimovic, who in turn released Mkhitaryan on the right wing. The Armenian winger sent in a low cross for the Swede but with the ball slightly behind the striker, he deftly back heeled the ball to Mata, who was waiting at the far post to score the winner with exactly twenty minutes left.
The goal seemed to deflate their Russian opponents and as United continued to dominate possession without looking extremely threatening in attack, they managed to hold on to their slender lead.
While the Europa League may pale in comparison when compared to it’s ‘big brother’, the UEFA Champions League, there is no denying the fact that United are strong contenders to win this year’s title.