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Manchester United v Zorya Luhansk: Jose Mourinho ponders keeping Wayne Rooney on bench to protect struggling star from his critics

Manchester United 1 - Zorya Luhansk 0

By Ian Whittell

Jose Mourinho is considering leaving Wayne Rooney out of the Manchester United line-up for their Europa League tie with Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk as he attempts to shield the England captain from growing speculation and debate over his long-term future at Old Trafford.

The United manager had intended to recall the forward, who was left out of his side's best display of the season when they humbled defending champions Leicester 4-1 on Saturday.

But exactly 12 years to the day since he made his debut for the club, scoring a hat-trick in a 6-2 Champions League victory over Fenerbahce, Rooney learned he may have to be satisfied with a place on the bench due to a minor back injury.

After Rooney's absence sparked widespread conjecture over whether the veteran has a future under Mourinho, the manager does not want to see a below-par performance from his club captain add further fuel to the fire.

"Wayne Rooney is selected (in the squad). I have not decided yet if I'll start with him," said Mourinho. "He didn't train yesterday, he did just a little bit of the session on Monday. He had a back problem. So today was the first time he had a training session with the other players and today it was a training session where the intensity and complexity is obviously reduced.

"So I was completely convinced of playing him tomorrow from the beginning with this situation in the last couple of days, but I am not sure if I'll do that because of the situation you created.

"He can't afford to have a performance that is not good. Because I am here to protect him and not to put him in difficult situations, I have to analyse whether the best thing for him is to start the game or not.

"So I am going to discuss that with him and the medical staff and decide."

In contrast to Rooney, and the apparent dwindling of his star at the club, team-mate Juan Mata appears to have won over his critics and demonstrated his value to Mourinho and the changes he is instilling at Old Trafford.

The Spanish international left Mourinho's Chelsea and became United's then-record club signing, for £37.1m, in January 2014 but his reunion with the Portuguese was expected to end badly.

However, Mata's form has clearly won over Mourinho who now even claims that he never wanted to allow him to leave Stamford Bridge nearly three years ago.

"I didn't sell him because my job is not to buy and sell (at Chelsea)," said Mourinho. "My job is to coach and my job is to work on the pitch. My job is to advise on the transfer policy. I don't buy and I don't sell and I never did.

"Secondly it was that he was one who asked to leave and when a player asks to leave I think you always have to think twice.

"The third point is that my idea of football, with the squad I had at Chelsea, with the objectives we had at Chelsea, is one thing. The football I want to play at Man United, the profile of my squad and what I want to do in this club is a completely different situation.

"My project at Chelsea, he was a good player, my project at United, he is a very good player. The football we want to play here is different. We are in the beginning of that process. I think he is very adept to do that with his qualities. We need players with these qualities. He has found a very good natural habitat."

The United manager admits he will have to choose a strong line-up against Zorya, following their opening game defeat at Feyenoord.

"It is very important," he said. "I think we have to win. If we don't win we have four matches and we would have to win all of the last four matches."

Europa League: Old Trafford, Tonight, 8.05 pm

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