Manchester United survive 2,100-mile trip to 'dangerous' Rostov with a draw thanks to Henrikh Mkhitaryan

Rostov 1 Manchester United 1: Jose Mourinho's fears over the pitch failed to materialise, despite Aleksandr Bukharov's equalising goal

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The Independent Football

When he imagined himself managing Manchester United, Jose Mourinho would have wondered how he might lead them in Europe’s great arenas. It is a symbol of the club’s decline that he found himself on the touchline in a little stadium on a bitingly-cold late winter’s night in provincial Russia.

And yet, when Mourinho’s time at Manchester United comes to be reviewed, this might be as good a European evening as any. If United are to return to the Champions League, winning the Europa League might be a more viable route than finishing fourth in the Premier League.

Rostov’s form in front of their own crowds has been such that it was perfectly possible to imagine Manchester United losing heavily here. At Old Trafford and on their own pitch, United should force their way through to the quarter-finals.

Some of those in the crowd had come to see Henrikh Mkhitaryan and, if they had come to see him score, they did not leave disappointed. Rostov has a big Armenian community with their own churches, graveyards and cultural centres. The city is twinned with the Armenian capital, Yerevan, where Mkhitaryan grew up, the son of a footballer.

It was fitting he should be the one to score and, given the circumstances, it was a well-worked goal. Marouane Fellaini, on the edge of the area, found Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who took the ball to the very edge of the byline before pulling it back for Mkhitaryan, who drove in from the edge of the six-yard box. It was his seventh goal of the season and three have come in away fixtures in the Europa League.

Rostov has close ties to Armenia, Henrikh Mkhitaryan's home country (AP)

This was crucial. When the goal came, his manager raised both fists above his head. This was a difficult match on a dog of a pitch against opponents who had beaten Ajax and Bayern Munich here this season. Given that Rostov do not travel well, even a narrow defeat might not have been too bad a night for Manchester United. An away goal was very precious.

Mourinho had said he would spend the eve of the match in the team hotel, which was thronged by Russian fans, pondering what team to play on a pitch he likened to a field. If he spent the night pacing his room in the Rostov Mercure, it benefited Fellaini. The pitch was awful, the wind blowing in from the steppes of southern Russia made every cross difficult to judge and led to free kicks being called back because the ball kept moving.

The conditions suited Marouane Fellaini, United's midfield battering ram (Reuters)

In his pre-match interview, Mourinho kept using the word ‘fight’ and Fellaini is a footballer who is up for a scrap. The first casualty, however, was Russian. Vladimir Granat, Rostov’s centre-half, tried to barge Mkhitaryan off the ball, came off worse and had to be substituted with the game just over a quarter of an hour gone.  

Mkhitaryan was booked for fending off Fedor Kudryashov. Then, Aleksandr Gatskan, Rostov’s captain, got himself suspended from the return at Old Trafford for a foul on Ibrahimovic.

The playing surface dominated everything. On the threadbare surface the ball behaved like a cricket ball used to on the final day of a Test match in India. When it struck the ground, there was often with a puff of dust. Sergio Romero went to take a goal-kick, slipped and saw the ball dribble forward, albeit with enough force to reach a red shirt.

Despite difficulties with the pitch, Jose Mourinho will leave Rostov happy (Getty)

His luck was not to hold. Ten minutes after the interval, with temperatures plummeting, Rostov levelled the match. Timofei Kalachev’s long ball went beyond Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, was taken down on his chest by Aleksandr Bukharov and bundled past Romero.

Bukharov was born in a city called Brezhnev in honour of the Soviet leader – which is rather like renaming a city after Jim Callaghan. However, his goal ensured that Manchester United’s cold war got a little more heated as Mourinho, who has not kept his opinions about this match to himself, began berating Kalachev from the touchline. He will probably have the last word in this fixture, too.

Rostov (5-3-2): Medvedev; Kudryashov, Granat (Terentyev 18) , Navas, Mevlja, Kalachev; Gatskan, Erokhin, Noboa; Poloz, Bukharov (Azmoun 74).

Subs not used: Goshev, Terentyev, Kireev, Bayramyan, Prepetlita.

Manchester United (4-3-2-1): Romero; Jones, Smalling, Rojo, Blind (Valencia 90); Young, Herrera (Carrick 90), Fellaini; Pogba, Mkhitaryan (Martial 68) Ibrahimovic.

Subs not used: De Gea, Mata, Lingard, Rashford.

Referee: Felix Zwayer (Germany)