Europa League | Manchester United 1 FC Rostov 0
Juan Mata scored the winner as Manchester United secured a place in the quarter-finals of the Europa League at the expense of FC Rostov with a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford.
The Spaniard clipped home from close range as Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s low cross was flicked into his path by Zlatan Ibrahimovic with 20 minutes remaining as the dominant Reds ensured progression to the last eight of the competition with a 2-1 aggregate scoreline.
In doing so, Jose Mourinho’s men maintained this season’s unbeaten home record in Europe and await Friday’s draw in Switzerland with interest.
After navigating difficult terrain in Rostov-on-Don last week to claim a creditable 1-1 draw in the first leg, it was back to the more familiar surroundings under the floodlights at the Theatre of Dreams for the Reds.
Mourinho insisted the players would be ready for a third game in eight days despite the quick turnaround and fielded a strong line-up, boasting four changes from Monday’s Emirates FA Cup defeat at Chelsea.
It was evident from the outset that United, like in the first leg, began with a three-man defence to match Rostov’s formation, with Antonio Valencia and Daley Blind operating as wing-backs in a fluid system.
It was from a Blind corner the Reds almost took the lead inside four minutes as Marcos Rojo met the Dutchman’s delivery with a firm header, which Rostov stopper Nikita Medvedev parried straight to Ibrahimovic but the striker, lurking with intent at the back post, could only hit the post from a tight angle via a touch from the keeper.
United’s positive attacking intent continued as Ibrahimovic had a free-kick well blocked by Andrei Prepelita before seeing a shot touched over by Medvedev after rounding the keeper when released by a delightful forward pass from Mata.
The Reds strongly appealed for a penalty on 26 minutes when Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who scored the crucial away goal in the first leg, appeared to be shoved in the back by the Rostov keeper when competing for a high ball but Lithuanian referee Gediminas Mazeika ignored the claims.
With the Reds bossing both possession and territory, it seemed only a matter of time before the breakthrough would come.
It almost arrived on two occasions when, firstly, Mata’s intelligent first-time pass released Mkhitaryan in behind the visitors’ defence but his lobbed effort dropped agonisingly wide of the post. Then, at the end of another free-flowing move, Ibrahimovic checked inside in the box and unleashed an unstoppable shot which rebounded off the right-hand post.
There was still time for Paul Pogba, an ever-present for United in this season’s Europa League, to draw a fine save from Medvedev from a 20-yard curler as a frustrating first half came to an end, albeit the Reds were safe in the knowledge that a goalless scoreline on the night would be enough to go through on the away goals rule.