Manchester United earned a profitable 1-1 draw against Rostov in Russia before a heartbreaking FA Cup exit at the hands of league-leaders Chelsea. Now, though, attention turns to the second half of Europa League action as United looks to secure a spot in the quarter-final of the competition. Key players will be more important than ever if United is to secure a place in the next round of the competition.
Aleksandr Bukharov, Striker, FC Rostov
Rostov’s gritty display in Russia only ended up in a draw because of Aleksandr Bukharov’s goal, and with he will likely start the second leg as the focal point of the Russian side. Bukharov, 32, has three goals and two assists in only eight Russian Premier League appearances this season, a ratio that many strikers in Europe’s top five leagues would envy- it isn’t particularly easy to score in Russia.
Bukharov’s range of threats are somewhat predictable for a 32-year-old striker- averaging 3.3 aerial duels per game, he will spur Rostov’s lofty ambitions of progressing to the next stage by allowing them to play long-passes into the channels. However, he has only completed 60% of his passes in the Russian Premier League this season, which means he is an easy target in possession of the ball.
Miha Mevlja, Defender, FC Rostov
Last week, I placed emphasis on towering defender Cesar Navas, but the Spanish stalwart isn’t actually the key cog in Rostov’s system from a statistical standpoint. That title goes to Miha Mevlja, whose combative performances at the heart of defence have him rated as Rostov’s best player, according to WhoScored.
Mevlja averages 2.9 tackles, 2.3 interceptions, and 4.1 clearances every match, adding up to an incredible 10 defensive actions per game. United needs to instead approach the weakness of his game, which, again, seems to be passing the ball, as Mevlja only completed 76.2% of his passes. The 6’4 defender is almost as intimidating as Navas in the air, though, which could prove to be problematic for Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Paul Pogba, Midfielder, Manchester United
Social media has been particularly critical of Paul Pogba in recent weeks and for no good reason. Again, against Chelsea, he played very well, until he had only Marouane Fellaini beside him in midfield and Marcus Rashford in front of him in Mourinho’s 6-2-1 formation after Ander Herrera saw red. In fact, for the entirety of Pogba’s first season at United, he has been very good- however, he hasn’t particularly stood out when United has needed him most, and perhaps that is warranting the criticism behind his performances.
One area in which I can say Pogba has been sub-standard is in physical duels- blessed with incredible physicality, the Frenchman seems to shrug away from a physical battle at times, seemingly the reason for which he lost Dejan Lovren in the box when United played Liverpool (before Pogba conceded a penalty). Today’s match against Rostov represents an opportunity for the Frenchman to shape up and not shrug away from a physical battle, and if he does, everyone around him will benefit greatly.
Eric Bailly, Defender, Manchester United
Regardless of United’s solid defensive performance against Chelsea, the Ivorian was sorely missed- Chris Smalling never assures viewers with his performances, to say the least, and watching him get turned by Eden Hazard wasn’t the prettiest sight. Bailly was also suspended for United’s first-leg encounter with Rostov, but I expect to see him return for the second leg, with ambitions of earning a clean sheet- regardless of the result, if United doesn’t concede, they are heading to the next round of the Europa League.
Averaging 2.4 interceptions, 2.4 tackles, and 5.4 clearances per game, Bailly is obviously an important defensive player for United, but probably most important of all is the fact that he’s significantly more comfortable in possession than Smalling. Bailly is hardly a ball-playing defender, but his passing out of the back is good enough that it doesn’t hinder United’s attacks, and he could potentially even develop to pass the ball at a world-class level during his time at United. Bailly, and United fans, will relish his return to the side.