Road-weary Reds prepare for Rostov decider
The dust has barely settled on Manchester United’s frustrating FA Cup exit at Chelsea, but José Mourinho’s men must now rouse themselves for the arrival of FC Rostov. The Reds rarely fare well at Stamford Bridge, and Monday’s defeat was just another in a long line of disappointing visits. N’Golo Kante’s second-half strike ended United’s hopes of retaining the FA Cup, but the Europa League represents another opportunity for silverware – not to mention a route back to the continent’s top table.
Mourinho cut an unhappy figure following his side’s 1-0 loss to the Blues, pondering what could have been if Michael Oliver had not opted to send off Ander Herrera for two innocuous offences. The Spaniard’s dismissal curtailed United’s early momentum, as the depleted Reds had performed admirably until the 35th minute.
"The dust has barely settled on Manchester United’s frustrating FA Cup exit at Chelsea, but Mourinho’s men must now rouse themselves for the arrival of FC Rostov."
Contrary to much of the pre-match build up Mourinho had no intention of “parking the bus” at the Bridge – United’s early approach brimmed with positivity. The league leaders created the better of the early chances, but Mourinho’s gameplan was far less conservative than many anticipated, with his side well in the game.
Herrera’s red-card has been debated hotly over the past few days, with predictably mixed conclusions. What is undisputable, however, is that it was the turning point in the tie. United were mostly resolute in the remaining hour, but Antonio Conte’s side continued to circle the wagons and eventually found a way through.
Of the three fronts on which Mourinho’s side was still competing, exit from the FA Cup is arguably the least harmful blow. The path to the trophy would have required beating Chelsea and two of Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. The Reds have struggled against the top sides in the Premier League, having beaten only Spurs at Old Trafford thus far in the season. While FA Cup failure is disappointing, the double incentive offered by the Europa League is probably more appealing.
United’s Portuguese manager won the competition in its former branding as the UEFA Cup, and bagging a European trophy in his first season at Old Trafford would provide a huge springboard for the club. At times the Reds’ performances in the competition have hinted at a lack of interest – especially in the group stages – but the ruthless way Mourinho’s side dispatched Saint-Etienne and a battling performance in Russia suggests otherwise.
Mourinho described the drawn first leg as a throwback to watching amateur football in his native Portugal, with the horrendous pitch conditions contributing to a low quality game. The manager expressed his disbelief that the tie was allowed to go ahead, such was the state of the park. His protestations fell on deaf ears at UEFA, and the ensuing game was not one for the purists. United dug in and played the conditions adequately, sneaking an away goal from the influential Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The dreadfully amateur equaliser may have inspired Mourinho’s remarks as much as the pitch, but in the end United escaped back to Manchester unharmed.
It is worth remembering that the conditions in Russia badly affected both teams, thus it was difficult to gain a true measure of Rostov’s quality. Ivan Daniliants’ side remains unbeaten in seven matches in all competitions, but has won only twice on the road all season. Successfully hitting United on the counter in their home leg, the Russians will almost certainly adopt a similar approach on Thursday evening. Conceding goals despite dominating the game has plagued Mourinho’s side this campaign, a fact that United’s opponents look to exploit.
Rostov arrives in Manchester with a host of absentees. Vladimir Granat suffered a broken collarbone in last Thursday’s tie, while Timofei Kalachev and Aleksandru Gatcan are both suspended. This leaves the Russians short of three players who started the first leg, a boost for United. In the absence of those senior players, it would be no surprise to see the visitors pack the midfield and attempt to deny service to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The visitors have used the underdog tag to the team’s advantage already this season, and a famous win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League should not be forgotten. That upset was recorded on home soil and the Germans retaliated by smashing five goals in the return fixture. United still lack the quality of the Bavarian giants, but will bank that Rostov’s travelling woes will ensure comfortable passage.
Paul Pogba cut a tired figure against Chelsea on Monday, and it may be time for Mourinho to do the 23-year-old a favour by giving the Frenchman a well-earned rest. The vultures have been circling around the world’s most expensive player for several weeks, and one night out of the firing line will not harm his United career in the longer term. Should Mourinho opt to rest the midfielder it will be seized upon by critics as an admission of the player’s recent struggles, but protecting the Frenchman is more important.
Pogba has played 104 top-level games since the beginning of last season, a colossal amount of football for a young player. The acceptability of his performances is another matter, but it has become increasingly obvious that a break is required. United should possess the firepower to overcome the Russian outfit without Pogba, and he will remain an option from the bench if needed.
United subs from: De Gea, Young, Darmian, Smalling, Jones, Fellaini, Pogba, Rashford
Rostov subs from: Kirev, Gueye Azmoun, Goshev, Veber, Mogilevets
Marcos Rojo and Antonio Valencia were the two standouts from a prolonged rear-guard action at Stamford Bridge. Valencia, in particular, has enjoyed a highly commendable season at right-back, while Rojo looks at home in the heart of defence. The Argentinian was lucky to escape punishment for a stamp on Eden Hazard, but he plays with a passion that just about offsets moments of indiscipline. The South American pair are likely to start on Thursday, presumably enduring a less taxing evening as United goes in search of goals.
The sole positive of Herrera’s dismissal on Monday is that both he and Henrikh Mkhitaryan should be fresh and available to start. Herrera was given his marching orders less than half way through the tie, and Mkhitaryan was immediately sacrificed for Marouane Fellaini as Mourinho adjusted United’s approach. The Reds have become reliant on the Armenian’s talents, and it will be vital that he sees as much of the ball as possible against a stubborn opponent.
Ibrahimovic is available to lead the line after a domestic ban ruled him out of Monday’s clash. The veteran Swede is another who will have benefited from some time on the sidelines, such is the extent to which he has carried the side this season. The 35-year-old bagged a hat-trick in the last round against Saint-Etienne, and a similar return tonight would see United safely into the last eight. Marcus Rashford does not deserve to lose his place, but the thankless task he shouldered against Chelsea, coupled with his recovery from illness, will likely see the youngster start on the bench.
Rostov will present a markedly different challenge to Chelsea, and it is yet another home game that Mourinho’s team is expected to win comfortably. These games games are the Reds’ undoing domestically, and that Achilles heel must not be allowed to disrupt the now vital European campaign.
Referee: Gediminas Mažeika
Assistants: Vyautas Šimkus, Vytenis Kazlauskas
Fourth Official: Dovydas Sužiedėlis
United 2-0 Rostov