Man-of-the-match Mata leads Man United past Rostov into UEL quarters
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.
Though Manchester United edged their way through to the quarterfinals of the Europa League, narrowly overcoming an obstinate FC Rostov by a 2-1 aggregate score, the true cost of this game might yet become clear. Paul Pogba went off with a hamstring injury, and may be unavailable for some of the season's crucial games. Elsewhere, Antonio Valencia, Sergio Romero and Juan Mata were particularly impressive, the latter with the only goal that decided this tie.
In a game in which Rostov sat deep for almost the entire match, Valencia and Mata took the game to them, and on the three occasions they truly threatened, Romero clawed the ball away in spectacular fashion. The passing move for the goal, started and finished by Mata, was a moment of rare beauty on a workmanlike evening.
Pogba went off injured, and United looked worryingly pedestrian against a massed Rostov defence; they did not play particularly badly, but mostly lacked the wit to open them up when they sat back.
Manager rating out of 10
7 -- Jose Mourinho was perhaps more conservative than he needed to be, playing a 3-5-2 from the beginning, but was rewarded for his rotation of Romero and for handing Mata a start. He will be pleased most of all, one suspects, with the clean sheet.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Sergio Romero, 8 -- Came in for David De Gea and made three saves that were at least very good and at best outstanding. A lesser goalkeeper would have conceded at least one of them; he was a major factor in this win.
DF Antonio Valencia, 8 -- One of the most dependable performers in this team. One-touch play was excellent, got back well and got beyond his man often. Final ball could have been a fraction better.
DF Chris Smalling, 6 -- A reasonable game, though not much was demanded of him. Passing forward was prompt enough.
DF Eric Bailly, 7 -- Added a typically robust edge to United's play, and made a smart block on the top of the box. One of his quieter nights.
DF Marcos Rojo, 7 -- A strong showing. Threatened early on at set pieces and cleared his lines without fuss, before getting forward to join the attack.
DF Daley Blind, 6 -- Gave United some good width and linked up well with his midfielders, but did not have the speed to take advantage of Rostov on the break.
MF Paul Pogba, 7 -- Beat his man time and again off the dribble, and drove prompt, long passes to either flank with ease. Also put in a much better defensive shift than some recent games. His shot selection could have been better.
MF Ander Herrera, 7 -- Got through a prodigious amount of work, at one point chasing down a pass with a slide tackle to keep it in play. Constantly urging his team forward, and combining well with Mata.
MF Juan Mata, 8 -- Arguably his team's best player, he started and finished the move that led to the game's only goal. His speed of thought and delivery set him apart, and two of his first-time passes were the best of the match.
MF Henrikh Mkhitaryan, 7 -- A difficult night against a well-drilled defence, but he still found room when it mattered most, punishing Rostov on the counter-attack by laying on Mata's goal. One weaving run through a cluster of Rostov defenders was one of the evening's rare highlights.
FW Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 7 -- Was very unlucky not to score in the first half, clattering the post with a fine drive. He held the ball up very well, and showed quick feet on several occasions. Produced a gem of a back-heel that led to a tap-in for Mata.
MF Marouane Fellaini, 7 -- Passed the ball at speed and with some ambition, and was positionally sound. One of his better games.
MF Phil Jones, 6 -- A nervy start as he was in an unfamiliar position -- left-wing-back, no less -- but he gamely struggled on, and by the end was relaxed enough to go on a long run, even beating two men to the crowd's delight.