It was hardly pitch perfect – not in any sense of the phrase. Manchester United will undertake the long journey back home with some regrets, but it could have been much worse. A 1-1 draw keeps them in control of their own Europa League fate.
To that degree, this was mission accomplished. A trip to Russia was low down on Jose Mourinho and United’s list of preferences when the draw for last 16 was made, but a difficult path has been navigated. The return leg at Old Trafford in a week’s time is rather more straightforward.
The second success, coupled with an away goal and, with it, a slender advantage, was the avoidance of injuries. There was only one topic of discussion on the mind of Mourinho throughout the week, and the troublesome Rostov turf did cause problems. But his players managed to emerge unscathed.
“I know we have to, but it is hard for me to believe we are going to play tomorrow in that field – if you can call it a field,” the Portuguese said on Wednesday. “And I don’t know what team to play, really. I don’t know if Henrikh Mkhitaryan is going to play.”
The answer to the first question was that Mourinho would trial a formation he has rarely, if ever, used from the start of a game throughout his managerial career. A three-man defence was flanked by Daley Blind and Ashley Young, while Marouane Fellaini, United’s man of the match, was one of seven changes. The message was simple: long balls were in order.
Mourinho surely took longer pondering over the second question. He would take a far greater risk. Mkhitaryan made his return to the side from a hamstring injury, the Armenian able to fully test his recovery on the questionable playing surface.
By the time of Mkhitaryan’s removal on the 67th minute, he had made the away side’s only telling contribution. The game passed Paul Pogba by, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic, assist aside, was subdued. Not for the first time, Mkhitaryan stepped up while many of his teammates shrank.
Ibrahimovic in particular has established himself as the club’s big-game player, the man who can be relied upon for the grand occasion. But what United have lacked so often is an individual who can produce against the lesser sides, who can dissect those intent on defending. Draws with Bournemouth, Hull, Stoke (x2), West Ham and Burnley have cost them in the Premier League; Mkhitaryan started just two of those fixtures.
He is quickly carving out a role as United’s small-game player, and that is by no means an insult. Rostov can now be added to the list of opponents the summer signing has scored or assisted against this season: Tottenham, Sunderland, Leicester, Wigan, Blackburn, West Ham, Hull, Zorya.
Spurs aside, it is an uninspiring collection, but that is precisely the point: while Ibrahimovic is scoring twice in cup finals and David de Gea is keeping clean sheets against top-four rivals, United need a player capable of performing as well at the bottom or in the middle of the card as he does at the top of the billing. Mkhitaryan is that man.
Mourinho declared that United were “one step from the quarter-final” on Thursday evening. This was a draw that feels like a victory for his side. However slight that win might be, this season proves that it could have been considerably worse without Mkhitaryan.