Man U tied one all with Russia side Rostov in the first leg at the Russians house. The Red Devils have the all important away goal heading back to Old Trafford.
The Daily Mail: “This was everything Jose Mourinho dislikes about the Europa League. Thursday nights, pokey stadiums in Eastern Europe, dodgy pitch.
But on an evening when a cold wind gusted around the Olimp-2 Stadium and no-one knew which way the ball was going to bounce on a wretched surface, he was happy to settle for this result.
A draw and an away goal to take back to Old Trafford in a week’s time should see Manchester United finish the job and secure a place in the quarter-finals of the competition.
It’s just as well it offers a direct route into next season’s Champions League because United have certainly put in the hard yards.
A European campaign that has already taken them to Istanbul and Odessa this season continued here two thousand miles away in south-west Russia.
Mourinho’s pre-match concerns about the state of a threadbare pitch proved well founded. No-one was injured, goodness knows how, but the ball skipped about on the hard, uneven surface.
What he hadn’t reckoned on was the blustery wind that blew it around like a balloon at times and only added to what was an awful spectacle.
By the end players were complaining that the grit from the pitch was blowing in their eyes, and they weren’t the only ones finding it hard to watch.
Mourinho didn’t mind too much as he boarded the team flight on Thursday night and headed back to Manchester with a draw.
‘I think we go home with a positive result,’ he said. ‘In these circumstances it is a positive result.
‘We know that it will be a tough match and we need to win or have a 0-0 draw, so the tie is open.
‘An away goal is always positive. It’s better 1-1 than 0-0 obviously, but the game is open. The result is open and with this Rostov team they have experience of playing big matches and big stadiums. I don’t think it’s a problem for them to compete against us.’
Mourinho accepted beforehand that this was not a night to be attempting fancy football. That was never on the cards. United knew they would have to scrap, and scrap they did.
He went for height and power, for three centre-backs, for Marouane Fellaini in addition to Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan was recalled after missing the last two games with a hamstring injury and was on target in the first half.
Fellaini started the move by controlling the ball on his chest and slipping it into the Ibrahimovic’s path. The Swede held off Cesar Navas as they wrestled their way towards the byeline and prodded the ball across the six yard box for Mkhitaryan who swept it effortlessly past Nikita Medvedev.
It was the third time this season that the Armenian has fired United into the lead away in Europe following his goals against Zorya Luhansk and St-Etienne.
‘We have played as good as we could on this pitch,’ said Mkhitaryan afterwards. ‘I do not want to speak about the pitch because it was awful for both. For those watching, it was not a very interesting game.’
From the start, it was clear that the conditions were going to play a part, but Mourinho’s side were prepared for a battle.
Mkhitaryan had already put Vladimir Granat out of the game with a shoulder injury when he was booked for flattening Fedor Kudryashov as well.
Aleksandr Gatskan retaliated for his team, leaving Ibrahimovic in a heap clutching his right ankle with a late challenge that earned the Rostov skipper the second yellow card of the night and a suspension for the second leg.
The conditions facing both teams became evident in the 29th minute when United goalkeeper Sergio Romero slipped taking a freekick and the ball bobbled pathetically along the floor for 20 yards before it was helped on by his defence.
It was to United’s credit that Romero had very little to do, but he was helpless to prevent Rostov from equalising in the 53rd minute with a goal that was as straightforward as it was clinical.
Timofei Kalachev floated a pass over the top of United’s defence and Aleksandr Bukharov had ghosted in behind Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, just onside.
Rostov’s No 11 took it perfectly on his chest and rifled a right-shot into the back of the next from eight yards.
‘We made one defensive mistake,’ observed Mourinho. ‘I don’t think we can concede that goal with the movement behind our defenders.’
The United boss then became embroiled in a touchline spat with Kalachev, making a mouth gesture with his hands at the defender who will also be suspended for the second leg.
‘After the match we spoke, we hug, we respect each other,’ he added. ‘He told me that he apologised and I said I was happy that he doesn’t play at Old Trafford.
‘We said nice things after the match – and during the match it was ‘shut up!’.’
There were some uncomfortable moments for United as a fervent home crowd sensed another victory after Bayern Munich, Ajax and Sparta Prague were all beaten here last season.
Aleksandr Erokhin wasted arguably Rostov’s best chance when he broke into the box and flashed a shot just wide of the upright.
However, United made it through a difficult night in testing circumstances. There is still work to do at Old Trafford, but it appears as though the hard part is over.