Manchester United’s quest for Europa League victory was seemingly aided by the Round of 16 draw against FC Rostov, a draw that most would consider favourable for Jose Mourinho’s men. However, Rostov presented a physical, defensive presence in their Champions League group stage campaign, qualifying for the Europa League despite being drawn in a group with Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid. Rostov was even able to grab a win against Carlo Ancelotti’s Bayern Munich side that recently dispatched Arsenal in the Round of 16 by an aggregate score of 10-2.
United will be wary of Rostov’s threats, but also ready to put out an attacking side and score enough goals to carry the tie to Old Trafford with a significant advantage. While it is often very hard to win in the hostile atmosphere of Russian football, and a lot of United’s away fans are not attending the game due to threats of violence, United still would have no excuses for losing after being afforded a good draw.
Sardar Azmoun, Forward, FC Rostov
On the weekend, Sardar Azmoun put away two wonder goals for Rostov in the Russian Premier League, creating plenty of hype for the young prospect ahead of this Europa League tie. Since United drew Rostov, Azmoun has headlined the papers due to his dubbed nickname, “the Iranian Messi”. With four goals and two assists from just 11 starts this season, at the age of 22, the hype behind this youngster could prove truthful.
His talents seem to have caught the eye of United’s biggest rivals, Liverpool, perhaps adding more hype to his matchup with United’s defenders. Adding to that, the Iranian seems to have his eyes set on becoming one of the best strikers in the Russian league, regardless of interest from Liverpool. However, a good performance under the lights against Manchester United would do his reputation no harm.
Cesar Navas, Defender, FC Rostov
Rostov will almost certainly need to defend crosses into the box with United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic slated to start the match. Despite this seemingly troublesome task, Rostov will gain significant comfort in the presence of Cesar Navas, a veteran defender who stands at a remarkable 6’6″ in height.
Navas, 37 years old, has plied his trade in the Russian Premier League for a very long time, first with Rubin Kazan and now with league-winners Rostov. Playing a match in which his side are such massive underdogs, the role of a defender will always be important. Furthermore, his leadership skills could prove vital in deciding the match.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Striker, Manchester United
After receiving a three-match ban for elbowing Tyrone Mings in United’s match against Bournemouth, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a near-certainty to start in the Europa League for Manchester United on Thursday. I don’t think he should be starting the game- not because of his actions, which were completely warranted given the fact he could’ve been seriously hurt, but because he played horribly and lost United two points with a subpar penalty.
However, Ibrahimovic doubtlessly has the potential to be a success against Rostov, hopefully adding to his 26 goals this season- in a traditional duel with Cesar Navas, he could find trouble, but it will be the first time in a while that he could have the better of his opposing defenders in terms of pace. Zlatan needs to show that he can fire United into the top four this season when he returns from his suspension, and the perfect way to do that would be to stay strong in the Europa League through this tough phase.
Ander Herrera, Midfielder, Manchester United
Herrera was rested during Manchester United’s draw against Bournemouth. The fact that this simple phrase explains exactly why United didn’t grab all three points is the perfect indicator of Herrera’s importance to United this season. Not only is Herrera currently the best midfielder at United and the best in England, he also has an irreplaceably unique style of play- his quick, high-tempo, Spanish-type passing is combined with an aggressive, driving nature that sees him compared frequently to Roy Keane (and also sees him pick up a significant number of yellow cards).
Herrera’s impact for United this season is best explained by his statistics in all three phases of play this season. Averaging three tackles and three interceptions per game in the Premier League, he has the most combined tackles and interceptions in England. In the Premier League, Herrera has averaged an incredible 75 passes per game with an accuracy of 88%, and in the Europa League, he has reached the next level- averaging 103 passes per game with an accuracy of 90%. Finally, moving forward, he averages 1.4 key passes per game and has seven assists this season.
Herrera has been the complete player for United, and one of the best players in the Premier League this season- many fans have been calling for the Spaniard to replace Wayne Rooney as club captain, and these claims are understandable. If United is to win in Russia against a tenacious Rostov side, Herrera’s aggression will be one of the most important aspects of United’s play in the match.