Ibrahimovic and Rooney combine to earn Man United victory over Zorya
MANCHESTER, England -- Three points from Manchester United's 1-0 win over FC Zorya Luhansk in the Europa League.
1. United get off the mark in Europe
It was an eminently forgettable game and the winner came courtesy of a mishit, but Manchester United recorded their third consecutive win in all competitions. Their Europa League campaign is up and running. After a loss to Feyenoord, United earned their first win in continental competition this season, seeing off Zorya Luhansk to go into the double header with Fenerbahce in better shape.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the sole goal, United's only one in the Europa League thus far this season, with the aid of Wayne Rooney. The scorer's name is indicative of a change of policy; Jose Mourinho's initial intention had been to use the Europa League to give his squad players a game, but defeat in Holland showed he may need to field a stronger side. The boss made only four changes this time, choosing a starting 11 that cost around £200 million, but they still needed the aid of the substitute Rooney to get the job done.
In the first half, Marcus Rashford rattled the bar with a rasping shot, again illustrating his ability to offer danger when everyone else is muted. United struggled to rouse themselves. The highlight of the first half -- besides Rashford's effort -- was when the assistant referee fell over rather comically.
But United were unconvincing. A team who reached the heights against Leicester on Saturday reverted to mediocrity. They could have been made to pay. Sergio Romero, standing in for David de Gea, made a decent save to deny Paulinho. Ivan Petriak and Zeljko Ljubenovic posed a threat on the counterattack. The warning signs were there for United. A better side might have punished them.
2. Ibrahimovic's happy belated return
Ibrahimovic's last start in this competition was so long ago that one of his opponents then, Heine Fernandez, is now in his 50s. It was so long ago that this was his first start in the Europa League -- or the UEFA Cup, as it was then called -- since Nov. 2001, when Ajax exited the competition to FC Copenhagen. Since then, he has been a constant in the Champions League, forever in the knockout stages but never actually winning it.
He has since ended his Sweden career, and Mourinho deemed him capable of starting twice in four days before the international break. Ibrahimovic seemed to represent a one-man assurance of victory. He duly delivered, ending what qualified as a drought by his high standards. A man who scored 50 times in 51 games for Paris Saint-Germain last season had gone four matches without a goal.
Perhaps it reflects upon United's travails, but, after an initial feast, Ibrahimovic found himself in a famine. Yet, as Mourinho rightly said, Ibrahimovic was excellent in Saturday's 4-1 win against Leicester, but four others found the net. On this occasion, his performance level was lower but he scored.
They are remembered for their goals, forgiven for much else if they found the net. For 67 minutes, Ibrahimovic had endured a frustrating night. A shot was deflected over. A free kick rebounded back off the wall. Passes almost found their intended target. Then, Ibra and Rooney combined -- unconventionally but effectively -- and the Swede notched his sixth United goal.
3. Rooney has an instant impact
The game was entering its last quarter when perhaps the loudest cheer of the night began. Those at Old Trafford chorused his name when he was brought on. Perhaps it was showing sympathy for a man who has been demoted rather publically, perhaps acknowledgement for his contribution over a dozen years. Perhaps they simply hoped someone would bring the game to life.
He certainly did that. Within a minute of his introduction, Rooney set up Ibrahimovic's goal. Just not quite how he intended, though. He miscued a volley to such an extent that it bounced down into the ground and up to the far post, where the Swede used his height to bundle the ball over the line.
It was scarcely proof of class, but it indicated that he can still be a catalyst. United required one. Mourinho fielded the same front four that proved so effective against Leicester, and they were altogether less devastating on this occasion. Cue Rooney.
Mourinho had cited Rooney's minor back problem as a reason not to start his captain. It did not prevent him from taking a place on the bench. He was received well, particularly from some of the school-age supporters, when he went to warm up. Rooney was ready to head straight for the Zorya box and make a vital contribution. He remains stuck on 246 United goals, but he added an assist.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.