Manchester United earned a 1-1 draw with FC Rostov just under a week ago in the UEFA Europa League round of 16 first leg clash in Russia. Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored the opening goal of the match towards the end of the first half, with Aleksandr Bukharov scoring the equaliser eight minutes into the second half. United tested a five at the back formation, to counter a similar formation played by the Russian side, which was also a real-time test to combat Chelsea as United played a similar formation at Stamford Bridge on Monday evening in their 1-0 defeat which saw the holders exit the Emirates FA Cup. United now needed to do the business at the Theatre of Dreams to earn a place in the quarter-final stage of the competition in Friday’s draw.
What are the Key Battles going to be against Rostov at Old Trafford?
Eric Bailly v Sardar Azmoun
The Ivorian defender has not played for United since the EFL Cup final victory over Southampton at Wembley last month and previous to that, played in the clash with Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford, seeing himself sent off and missing the next match, which United were in the driving seat for anyway being 3-0 up from the home leg. Bailly has been named on the bench recently, just never been given the chance to play, despite United utilising three central defenders in their last two matches. I would expect Bailly to be one of the defenders that need to stop Rostov from getting that elusive away goal, which would only add pressure to United. Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored in Russia, putting United in the driving seat at this moment in time, despite a 1-1 draw earned from the match. With Aleksandr Bukharov suspended for this match, Sardar Azmoun, the second highest goalscorer in the Rostov side this season, could well play a part from the start of the match. When he was introduced in the 74th minute a week ago, he seemed to do the business against United and will probably more likely to use that as inspiration to get the better of United and see themselves into the last eight of the Europa League this season, something United also have more pressure to achieve. Bailly, when he has played has been decent in the back four, bur partner wise, if Jose Mourinho played four at the back, Marcos Rojo would be the best option based on his current form.
Paul Pogba v Alexandru Gațcan
Paul Pogba is a player who does need to do more this season, but also supporters need to lower their estimations as he’s not going to emerge as a player like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi by scoring spectacular goals match after match. Pogba is a midfielder, the fee spent on him does not change that. Still, improvement is needed to establish a place in the side for years to come. Against Chelsea, Pogba seemed like a shadow of a player with such tools at his disposal. He does need to stand up against Rostov to help push United into the quarter-final of the Europa League as the chances for a Champions League place are starting to run out this season, something United need to succeed at, or face pay cuts, sponsorship cuts and another media barrage of abuse, discontent and probably protests. You know what the fan base is like, some are a right state who get reactionary about the slightest of things, then moan that you are the one in the wrong for not reacting the same. No such thing as a ‘Top Red’ I am afraid. Alexandru Gațcan was lively against United, but was booked in the match, so faces a tightrope walk of his own to avoid a booking, or cost his side in the next match, whether that is this season, or whenever they qualify for a UEFA club competition again.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic v Miha Mevlja
The veteran Swedish striker missed the defeat to Chelsea due to suspension but will be eligible to play in the Europa League against the Russian side. United did miss him on Monday evening, but with Marcus Rashford, a pacier forward, running the line it made United look more fluid, or would have if there was adequate attacking and creative players on the pitch with United playing a mainly defensive style of play against the park the bus specialists at Stamford Bridge. Zlatan has the ability to score a goal or two but also has the ability to miss sitters, which goes against him slightly. 26 goals scored this season seems to suggest he will be installed as the lead striker again, which would be needed with his next match not coming until the 4th April with him still being suspended for two more domestic matches and an international break coming up. Slovenian defender Miha Mevlja could have his work cut out for him, should he play against United at Old Trafford. I am sure Zlatan and his United teammates will be looking to score more than one goal, taking the pressure off at the Theatre of Dreams and earning a quarter-final place in the Europa League, aiming to win the competition in Sweden in May.
Written by Mike Wilson