A sluggish Manchester United were unable to finish off FC Rostov in the first leg of their UEFA Europe League round-of-16 tie on Thursday night at the Olimp-2 Stadium, allowing the hosts to come back and hold the English giants to a 1-1 draw.
Prior to the game, United’s outspoken manager Jose Mourinho had complained about the sorry state of the pitch and the Portuguese tactician sent out a strong line up as the Red Devils looked to keep their quadruple hopes alive.
Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera started in the midfield pivot but it was the inclusion of the much-reviled Maruoane Fellaini that raised a few eyebrows. Alongside the big Belgian were the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, making his return from a hamstring injury and the mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Ibrahimovic, suspended for three domestic games after elbowing Tyrone Mings in the Premier League but available for the Europa League, led the line but with United’s midfield stuck in second gear, he was unable to score in slow first half.
And while United fans were unhappy with the Belgian Fellaini starting, his presence proved vital in the opener, cheating down a long ball on the edge of the box before releasing Zlatan. The Swede had looked to run out of space as he neared the byline but managed to cut the ball back for Mkhitaryan to poke in from inside six yards in the 35th minute.
Despite getting the early breakthrough and dominating the possession stats, the Red Devils failed to create any meaningful chances after that and after switching off post the interval, paid the price as the home side equalised in the 53rd minute.
Rostov forward Alksandr Bukharov beat the offside trap and calmly controlled a long ball which had sailed over Chris Smalling and Phil Jones before smartly finishing past United’s reserve goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
United never looked like getting a winner on the night and and while the match petered out into a draw, Mourinho will have plenty of positives to take from the game.
The next leg is on March 17 and at Old Trafford Mourinho will fancy his chances of progressing to the quarters without much fuss, but he has other concerns at the moment. The chief one being of course, the crunch FA Cup quarterfinal clash on Monday ngiht against ex-club Chelsea, a game which United will be forced to play without star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.