Friday, 30 September 2016

Zlatan Is United's Head Boy

Manchester United 1 Zorya Luhansk 0

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the difference at the Theatre of Dreams as Manchester United won their first Europa League group game by overcoming relatively unknown Ukraine opposition Zorya Luhansk.

Mourinho has promised to take the competition seriously and this was reflected in his starting XI: Romero, Rojo, Smalling, Bailly, Fosu-Mensah, Fellaini, Pogba, Mata, Lingard, Rashford and Ibrahimovic.

Captain Rooney would once again have to start on the bench and apart from the absences of regulars De Gea, Blind and Herrera, it was a strong side that was given the task of earning the first win in the group stage.

The game kicked off in front of a stadium not exactly full to the rafters as supporters still lacked the enthusiasm for Thursday night football. However, the fans that had turned up got behind the Reds from the start.

The visitors had the first chance of the game after five minutes as Ljubenovic tried his luck against stand in keeper Romero but his effort sailed high over the goal.

United passed the ball around the pitch comfortably without creating any clear openings and it was Fellaini who saw most of the ball as he played safe passes from midfield without finding the killer pass needed to gee up the crowd.

It was left to Ibrahimovic to liven up the proceedings after twenty minutes as he fired in a shot from distance that looked goal bound until a defender slid in and deflected the shot over the bar.

A minute later the crowd rose in unison as they thought a goal had come from Rashford who crashed a thunderbolt of a shot against the underside of the bar that was still rattling as the defenders cleared their lines.

It was a delight to watch the way in which the talented youngster made room for his shot in a crowded area and that one moment of skill made his inclusion in the starting team worth it.

The away side had clearly trained in the art of play acting as they frustrated the United players, fans and Mourinho who was stood on the touchline throughout.

The referee from Israel didn't exactly endear himself to the crowd after allowing play to continue after Mata had been caught very late and was fortunate not to receive a serious injury.

Then Mata and Fellaini both came close to breaking the deadlock with headers that needed better direction. The Mata effort followed excellent work by Pogba who delivered a pinpoint cross that the diminutive Spaniard was unlucky not to convert.

At half time it was all square and to be honest a little like an exhibition match as the crowd was full of school children cheering on their heroes and an away section with only about fifty away fans that did their best to out cheer the United youngsters.

Mourinho would have to inject some form of enthusiasm into his side during the break as they lacked the pace and incisive passing needed to make the breakthrough.

The second half got underway with United attacking the Stretford End and Mourinho decided against making any changes.

Zorya set the early pace and almost took the lead as Ljubenovic just failed to connect with a teasing cross.

Fosu-Mensah, playing at right back, tried his best to create chances from the right and on one occasion he linked well with Lingard whose cross was intercepted by the keeper before Ibrahimovic could connect.

The impressive Bailly was booked just after the hour mark after a hefty challenge on Paulinho.

Paulinho then curled an effort towards goal, but Romero was wide awake to the shot and produced a good save diving fully stretched to his left.

With 67 minutes on the clock, Mourinho decided to bring on his captain Rooney in place of Lingard with time running out in the search for the all important goal.

As so often happens in football a substitution produces the desired effect and it was true again in this match as a cross was delivered into the penalty area by Fosu-Mensah and there was Rooney only on the pitch for two minutes to try his luck.

His effort was badly miskicked into the turf, but thankfully for his side and to save his own blushes, it looped up nicely for Ibrahimovic who leapt at the far post to head the ball downwards into the net to finally give the home side the lead. That was Ibrahimovic's sixth goal in ten matches. Not the prettiest of goals he will score, but they all count.

With fifteen minutes left Mourinho made a double substitution by bringing on Young and Martial in place of Mata and Fosu-Mensah.

Rashford continued to raise pulses on the left as he attempted to dribble his way past a bamboozled right back at every opportunity and if his captain had not misplaced a through ball he would have been clear on goal.

Apart from a Fellaini chance that fizzed over the bar and a free kick well delivered by Ibrahimovic and equally well saved by Shevchenko that was about it for the night as United ended the match as victors and in doing so collected their first three points in the group stage.

In the end, it was a match that lacked any conviction from Mourinho's men who can't be blamed for lacking the same enthusiasm as they would for the more important Premier League. However, they got the job done and now face a harder task with a double header against Turkish outfit Fenerbahce next month.

Bailly once again shone at the back and Rashford gave his all as usual and was unlucky not to score. He also spent most of the game chasing poor passes. Fellaini was involved in every movement in the middle without going above and beyond his normal style of play, but the Man of the Match award has to go to Ibrahimovic for scoring the goal that sent the locals home happy and gave the kids something to cheer about.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.