What once was Manchester United’s fourth priority this season is now rapidly climbing in importance. The Europa League may be the tournament of losers and failures, but victory in the final on 24 May in Stockholm comes with the prize of Champions League football next season. The Reds may need it, especially after José Mourinho’s side dropped yet more points at home last weekend. Fourth place or better is now out of United’s hands.
The Reds’ home draw against Bournemouth came with the now familiar sense of disappointment and frustration. After all, Mourinho’s side create plenty of chances against one of the Premier League’s most porous defences, but once again failed to covert openings into goals, and goals into victory. Saturday’s draw was the seventh at home in the league campaign, with five of those coming against teams lower in the table. Too many frustrated weekends, too many missed chances, far too many dropped points.
Mourinho called his team unlucky, but he surely knows that the truth is somewhat different. It has become a familiar refrain this season, yet his side lies 18th of 20 in the Premier League for chances taken. Top goalscorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic may have bagged 26 in all competitions since joining in the summer, but he has also missed 17 ‘big chances’ in the league alone. That figure is around double the next worst offender.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]What once was United’s fourth priority this season is now rapidly climbing in importance. The Europa League may be the tournament of losers and failures, but victory in the final comes with the prize of Champions League football next season.[/blockquote]
In that there is the crux of United’s challenge. Mourinho’s side is a significant improvement on those produced by Louis van Gaal and David Moyes, and yet profligacy in front of goal may well cost the team a place in next season’s Champions League. It may cost tens of millions in lost revenue as well.
The Europa League can only partially make up for domestic disappointments, but it does take on a new level of importance given United’s position in the league, and an upcoming FA Cup tie at Chelsea that is far from a gimme. Not least with Mourinho’s side unlikely to enjoy a much training between returning from Russia in the early hours of Friday morning and kick-off at Stamford Bridge on Monday night. Indeed, Mourinho’s team has seemingly given more credence to the Europa tournament as it has progressed. Victory over Saint-Etienne in the Round of 32 was comfortable in comparison to the laboured performances of the autumn.
United’s task is made more difficult by the lengthy flight to Rostov, which although situated in western Russia, is some three hours drive north of Moscow – 2,600 miles from home. The state of the pitch is also a concern, with the Olimp-2 stadium grass both dry and severely cutting up after a tough winter. Mourinho expressed genuine concern about the propensity for injuries on an uneven surface. Even if the Reds escape unhurt, there is little about the pitch to encourage attractive football, or to go easy on already weary limbs.
Little wonder Mourinho has been circumspect about United’s chances, despite the prize on offer should the Reds go all the way in the competition.
“It’s a bad draw in every aspect,” the Portuguese manager said. “It’s far and is difficult. It’s far and comes in a bad period for us. It’s difficult because they are a very difficult team; they had a very good Champions League campaign. They had a very difficult group with Bayern and Atletico but they managed important results against them.
“It’s still hard for me to believe we are going to play tomorrow,” Mourinho added. “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.”
That Champions League campaign was earned after Rostov beat Anderlecht and Ajax in the qualifying rounds. Despite being drawn in a group with Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid, the Russian outfit finished third ahead of PSV Eindhoven to qualify for Europe’s second-tier competition. Rostov secured two draws against the Dutch side and a 3-2 home victory over Bayern.
Domestically, it has been far from an easy campaign to date. Rostov lies seventh in the Russia league, although Ivan Daniliants’ side managed to beat Tom Tomsk 6-0 away at the weekend in the team’s first league match after the winter break. Despite the mixed domestic form, Rostov remains unbeaten at home in the league, and has lost just once in the past seven European home games.
The side contains few names recognisable on the international stage, although Iranian international forward Sardar Azmoun could pose a real threat. The 22-year-old scored nine times in 27 games last season, while netting twice in the weekend’s victory over Tomsk. Experienced manager Kurban Berdyev has previously been in charge of FC Rubin Kazan and the national team of Turkmenistan,
It will be the Reds’ first encounter with the 87-year-old club, although that is unsurprising given the hosts have traditionally been a mid-ranked Russian team, and played in the second tier as recently as 2008. However, recent success includes finishing runners-up in the Russian Premier League last season, and securing the Russian Cup in 2014.
Eric Bailly is unavailable while serving a one-match European ban after being sent off against Saint-Etienne. However, winger Henrikh Mkhitaryan could be involved after recovering from injury. The Armenian missed United’s EFL Cup Final victory and the draw with Bournemouth, but travelled with the squad to Russia.
Mourinho says that his team selection may be influenced by the state of the Rostov pitch, although the Portuguese has a tough calculation to make. The manager must balance remaining competitive in a Europa League tie that the Reds do not have to win, while ensuring the tie remains live when Rostov come to Old Trafford next week. United’s FA Cup tie with Chelsea on Monday will also factor in the thinking.
Rostov subs from: Komissarov, Terentyev, Poloz, Mogilevets, Bayramyan, Prepeliță, Dević, Yerokhin, Nandinho
United subs from: Romero, O’Hara, Blind, Darmian, Young, Carrick, Fellaini, Mkhitaryan, Rashford, Ibrahimovic
“I don’t know what team to play, really,” the manager admitted on Wednesday. “I don’t know if Henrikh Mkhitaryan is going to play. I have now a lot to think about because I was expecting something more playable. It was a very similar pitch in the summer in China when we and Manchester City decided not to play, but it looks like we have to play. I didn’t have any contact with anyone until now. I just had a quick contact with one gentleman from Uefa when I was looking at the pitch and when I told him about my concerns, the gentleman told me the players are insured, so if something happens, no problem.”
Still, Mourinho is likely to select a strong side despite the bluster, including Ibrahimovic who misses Monday’s FA Cup tie through suspension. Mkhitaryan is more likely to feature from the bench after only just returning from injury, while Michael Carrick and Juan Mata may be competing for just one place in the side. With Bailly out, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling could resume a centre-back partnership that has not always inspired confidence. Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo compete for a place at left-back, with Luke Shaw left out of the 20-man travelling squad. Wayne Rooney also remained at home with the cup tie and Ibrahimovic’s suspension in mind.
Daniliants enjoys a near full-strength squad, although first choice goalkeeper Soslan Dzhanaev is set to miss out through injury. The manager has predictably played down his side’s chances, despite that fine home record in Europe.
“All the players are preparing for the game tomorrow and I will decide my line-up tomorrow,” the 64-year-old said. “For us, all the matches in the qualifying for the Champions League and the group stage were very important. We understand the level of our opponent level is higher than our level.”
The 250 travelling United’s supporters will certainly hope so.
Referee: Felix Swayer
Assistant referees: Thorsten Schaffner, Marco Achmüller
Additional assistants: Marco Fritz, Patrick Ittrich
Rostov 1-2 United