Three thoughts on Rostov and Manchester United’s 1-1 draw in the UEFA Europa League round-of-16 first leg.
1. Man United escape Rostov with away goal
It was a match that Jose Mourinho did not want played, with the field at the Olimp-2 stadium more resembling the infield of a baseball diamond than the bowling-green surfaces that Premier League clubs play on. The United manager will, though, be happy to have escaped Rostov with the away goal scored by Henrik Mkhitaryan in the 35th minute, even if it was cancelled out by Aleksandr Bukharov’s equaliser eight minutes after half-time.
Much of this game was an antidote to the freakish, pulsating drama on show on Wednesday night at Camp Nou between Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain. United found chances hard to come by and, though Rostov had more efforts, all but Bukharov’s were snatched. Paul Pogba, as part of another unconvincing performance, swung and missed at a very early opportunity, a mistake reminiscent of his failure to make a proper connection in the dying stages of Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Bournemouth.
Crosses from Ashley Young at right wing-back and Daley Blind on the opposite flank were the prime threat to Rostov’s massed defence and the home team’s first-half display showed nothing in the way of attacking ambition. Instead, there were long sequences of niggling tackles and several instances of playacting to keep German referee Felix Zwayer busy.
Considering the amount of time the ball had previously spent in the air, it was surprising that United’s goal came from a slick interchange of passing. Marouane Fellaini’s chest control from Phil Jones’ long pass was typically adept, though the delicacy with which he released Zlatan Ibrahimovic down the left flank was uncharacteristic.
Ibrahimovic got to the byline and his pass gave Mkhitaryan time to steady himself and slot the ball into an open net. The Armenian, whose collision with Vladimir Granat had led to the Rostov defender having to leave the field with a painful shoulder injury, had been lively and Mkhitaryan looked unfazed by conditions on his return to action after missing two weeks with a hamstring injury.
Mourinho, who had been surly during his prematch duties, jumped up in celebration when his side took the lead. The Europa League has taken on greater importance as United’s hopes of the gatecrashing the Premier League’s top four are stymied by an inability to climb beyond sixth in the table.
Had United maintained their lead, then next week’s second leg would have been an easy stroll. But Rostov will not be in Manchester for a sightseeing mission. Having lifted their tempo from the start of the second half, the equaliser came. Timofei Kalachev’s ball forward found Bukharov running beyond Jones and with time to guide his volley past Sergio Romero.
That inspired further Rostov sorties forward, as a loud home crowd urged on their heroes. Half chances came and went for substitute Christian Noboa and Kalachev, as United’s players began to slip on a surface that kept deteriorating; Ibrahimovic twice lost his footing with nobody around him.
2. Ibrahimovic keeps his cool
United fans will get only one more view of Ibrahimovic in the next three weeks — the second leg of this tie — after he accepted a three-match ban for a retributive elbow on Bournemouth’s Tyrone Mings last Saturday.
With the playing surface giving little opportunity for passes to be played along the ground, Ibrahimovic’s skills in the air and his ability to control aerial balls came into heavy play. Rostov were, however, wise to that approach and fielded a five-man defence that had little pretension to converting to three when going on the attack, especially in the first half.
Ibrahimovic was permanently surrounded by yellow shirts and, with Mkhitaryan and Fellaini a considerable distance away, Pogba’s usual attacking darts were also strictly rationed as he struggled in the centre of the field, where the pitch was at its worst.
United’s leading scorer is never one to shirk physical battles and spent much of his evening on the Don Delta as a target for clattering challenges. Rostov captain Aleksandr Gatskan dished out one of them in the first half and was booked for his troubles, meaning he will miss the second leg.
Unlike on Saturday, though, Ibrahimovic did not allow himself to be provoked; he looked most annoyed by the indignity of the playing surface. Instead, his assist for Mkhitaryan’s vital goal was coolness personified.
3. New formation, mixed results for United
Mourinho, pounding up and down his technical area all evening, had abandoned all previous convention by fielding three at the back, with Jones accompanied by Marcos Rojo and Chris Smalling. It signalled the manager’s intention to escape from the southern reaches of Russia with either a narrow lead, a score draw or a saveable disadvantage.
The effect of that approach was to pack the midfield and reduce Rostov’s limited — until the latter stages — attacking ambitions and to give Young and Blind licence to advance forward.
For the first half, it worked well, but Rostov’s equaliser betrayed its shortcomings among defenders not used to the formation. Jones and Smalling were caught looking at each other as Bukharov stole in to score. At least United could be back in numbers when Rostov’s late attempt at bombardment came.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.