Belfast Telegraph

Manchester United stand firm to beat the cold and the pitch

Zorya 0 Man United 2

By Steve Tongue

Manchester United, hoping to avoid a winter of serious discontent, achieved their first objective by qualifying for the Europa League knockout stages amid the cold blast of sub-zero temperatures on the edge of the Black Sea.

As it transpired, Feyenoord's loss at home to Group A winners Fenerbahce meant that even a defeat against Zorya Luhansk in eastern Ukraine would have taken United through, although a sixth successive away defeat in European competition would hardly have helped morale for the potentially difficult task as Champions League drop-outs enter the tournament in the New Year.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan, slowly being integrated into the side, scored a fine first goal for the club soon after half-time, an interval in which United's players may well have felt the acid side of Jose Mourinho's tongue.

The second did not come until the closing stages, Zlatan Ibrahimovic continuing his recent scoring run. Having picked a strong side, the manager might reasonably have expected more earlier on from a game of few chances at either end.

He had insisted before kick-off that the playing surface, only passed fit after an inspection earlier in the day, was "not so bad" and "not dangerous". It offered an easy excuse - too easy - for some of the first-half passing, which United improved after the opening goal.

They enjoyed even higher levels of possession than the 72 per cent from a 1-0 win in the first meeting at Old Trafford in September and, apart from one early save, goalkeeper Sergio Romero's most uncomfortable moment for a long time was when a flare landed in his goal area.

Result apart, Mkhitaryan's demonstration of something like his true potential, first hinted at in the previous Europa League tie at home to Feyenoord, was the most encouraging feature.

He did not sit on the left of midfield, but drifted inside in search of possession and openings, while Ibrahimovic often came deep, trying to link up with Wayne Rooney.

United's captain was looking for the goal to equal Sir Bobby Charlton's club record of 249, but will have to wait for now after being substituted with 20 minutes left.

With Sunday's Premier League game against Tottenham in mind, United had left Michael Carrick at home as well as full-backs Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia. So there were six changes to the side that squandered two points at Everton last Sunday, with Ashley Young a surprising choice at right-back but comfortable throughout.

Eric Bailly returned after six weeks out with an injury and came through well despite one heavy collision in the second half.

Abundant possession or not, including a series of corners, there was not a United shot on target until Rooney's two just before the interval, the second of which led to a corner from which Marcos Rojo shot over the bar.

The best effort came from the home side early on, Romero pushing away a low drive by Ihor Kharatin and Ivan Petryak putting the rebound into the side-netting.

That was superseded by Mkhitaryan two minutes into the second half. He ran from the centre circle after Rojo won the ball and went on to score with a confidence that bodes well after a difficult start to his United career.

The other goal, three minutes from time, was equally well taken by another summer acquisition, Ibrahimovic, who was sent clear by Paul Pogba's swivel and pass.

Zorya: Levchenko, Opanasenko, Sivakov, Forster, Sukhotsky, Karavayev, Kharatin (Grechyshkin, 57 mins), Chaykovsky , Petryak, Ljubenovic (Lipartia, 72 mins), Bezborodko (Bonaventure, 54 mins). Unused subs: Shevchenko, Kulach, Paulinho, Checher.

Man Utd: Romero, Young, Bailly, Rojo, Blind, Pogba, Ander Herrera, Mkhitaryan (Fosu-Mensah, 85 mins), Rooney (Fellaini, 70 mins), Mata (Lingard, 65 mins), Ibrahimovic. Unused subs: De Gea, Jones, Martial, Rashford.

Referee: Tamas Bognar (Hungary)

Man of the match: Henrikh Mkhitaryan

Match rating: 5/10

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