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Tom SunderlandFeatured ColumnistMarch 16, 2017

Manchester United booked their place in the quarter-finals of the 2016-17 UEFA Europa League after beating Rostov 1-0 in their round-of-16 second-leg meeting on Thursday to complete a 2-1 aggregate victory.

Juan Mata’s 70th-minute opener helped settle the two-legged tie for the English giants, although United may attract some criticism for appearing far too pedestrian in their work at times.

Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo formed a back three for United with Daley Blind and Antonio Valencia either side, while Sergio Romero started in goal as David De Gea was rested. Manager Jose Mourinho will have been saddened to see Paul Pogba pull up with what appeared to be a hamstring injury early in the second half, however.

It seemed almost ironic that Mata—a player Mourinho once sold to United from Chelsea—should arise as the Red Devils’ saviour and extend his streak of double-digit scoring, per Sky Sports Statto:

Mourinho’s men opened Thursday’s assault in the ascendancy and came within inches of finding a lead when Zlatan Ibrahimovic pounced after Rojo’s header from a corner was finely saved. However, his close-range effort was blocked by a combination of the post and Rostov goalkeeper Nikita Medvedev.

Medvedev was slightly fortunate to have not given a penalty away in the 26th minute, appearing to give Henrikh Mkhitaryan a shove in the back when the winger was jumping for a header in the guests’ box. 

Mkhitaryan had one of United’s best chances in front of goal when a neat interchange between Ibrahimovic and Mata saw the Spaniard pick out his Armenian team-mate one on one with Medvedev.

However, Mourinho’s speedster was unable to find the steady nerve he needed in just a few seconds on the ball, drawing his lob attempt left of the goal. With the shots piling up in favour of the hosts, Benchwarmers mused how long it would take before a breakthrough emerged:

Ibrahimovic saw the best chance of the opening period toward the half-time whistle, when he wriggled free of his marker to find a foot of space in the left and again rattle Medvedev’s right post from 20 yards away. 

The second half got off to a horror start for United, when Pogba appeared to pull something in his hamstring challenging for a high ball, and the Press Association jested his replacement wasn’t quite like for like:

United’s injury woes worsened on the 63-minute mark when Blind was forced off and Phil Jones came on as his replacement, with United more desperate for an opener than ever in order to settle any nerves.

The nerves appeared to be telling for Mourinho after seeing his side suffer a second injury setback in 20 minutes, and Rob Dawson of the Manchester Evening News painted a picture of the touchline tension:

Rostov weren’t without their threat, either, and Sardar Azmoun tested the skills of Romero before coming off to be replaced by Aleksandr Bukharov.

United’s breakthrough finally appeared after 70 minutes, however. Mata intercepted on halfway to get a counter-attack started before Ibrahimovic back-heeled Mkhitaryan’s cross from the right into the lurking Spaniard’s path to prod home. Football blogger Liam Canning felt it was a deserved reward:

Mata’s goal didn’t change much for either side considering a Rostov goal would still have taken the match to extra time, but the home team were at least far more at ease after managing to unearth a crucial score.

Bukharov—who scored Rostov’s equaliser in the first leg—came close to levelling the score for a second time, too, but Romero’s sprawling dive was enough to glance the Russian’s neat header wide.

Christian Noboa had a last-gasp chance to level things up for Rostov with a free-kick deep into injury time, although Romero again came to United’s rescue with a Superman-esque save to his top right.

United were far from reaching their most fluid potential against Rostov, but it’s suggested that winning while playing badly can also hold its share of positives, and with that, Mourinho can be pleased.

The Red Devils will feature in the Europa League’s last eight, but their next test is a Premier League trip to Middlesbrough on Sunday as they look to improve their domestic fortunes, too.


Post-Match Reaction

Mourinho bemoaned his side's hectic fixture schedule after Thursday's win.

Mourinho bemoaned his side’s hectic fixture schedule after Thursday’s win.OLI SCARFF/Getty Images

Not for the first time this season, United’s packed schedule was a key topic for Mourinho in his post-match comments as his side has just two days to prepare before they travel to the Riverside Stadium.

The Portuguese spoke to BT Sport (h/t BBC Sport) and detailed his fury before surprisingly going on to presict his side will “probably lose” to Middlesbrough as a direct result of fatigue:

It’s hard to argue against some scheduling slip-ups, with United set to kick off their Sunday match at noon—the earliest of any Premier League fixture that day.

Pogba and Blind’s injuries were two particularly unfortunate side-effects of Thursday’s outing, although Metro‘s Chris Winterburn provided some more positive words of hope from Mourinho:

Boro won’t be an easy opponent to dethrone on home soil, but after sacking manager Aitor Karanka on Thursday, Mourinho can at least hope to hit the northeast outfit when they’re at their most vulnerable.

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