Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s second-half goal was enough to give Manchester United a crucial Europa League victory over Zorya Luhansk on Thursday evening.
The Reds were frustrated for long periods of the game but found the all-important breakthrough 20 minutes from time, as the striker headed home at the back post.
Jose Mourinho had stressed the importance of winning the game in his pre-match press conference, and delivered on his promise to start the Swede, with Paul Pogba, Juan Mata and in-form Marcus Rashford also included in a strong United line-up.
Following last weekend’s dismantling of Leicester City at the Theatre of Dreams, the Reds again played with intent from the off, but it was the Zorya’s Zeljko Ljubenovic who registered the game’s first effort at goal in the fifth minute, a shot well blocked by Eric Bailly.
United were in total control of possession in the opening stages, though a notable chance for Mourinho’s men didn’t arrive until the 20-minute mark, when Ibrahimovic’s deflected effort from the edge of the box looped into the air and narrowly wide.
It was a close call which sparked some life into the Reds, and the deadlock was so nearly broken just moments later, when Pogba glanced Mata’s corner into the path of Rashford, whose powerful strike cannoned back off the underside of the crossbar.
During a half when chances were few and far between, neither side fashioned an opening again until the 38th minute, when Tim Fosu-Mensah regained possession for United on the edge of the Zorya area, but Mata couldn’t direct his header on target from Pogba’s cross.
Five minutes before the break, the Reds then had two half-opportunities in quick succession, as Zorya defender Rafael Forster stabbed the ball just wide of his own goal, before Fellaini’s header bounced up off the turf and over the top.
It meant the sides went in level at the interval, with the game finely poised ahead of an important 45 minutes.
Possession: United 75% Zorya 25%
Shots: United 7 Zorya 3
On target: United 0 Zorya 0
Corners: United 7 Zorya 2
The second period soon fell into a similar pattern, with the Ukrainian side looking to hit United on the break. They might have done so, had Ljubenovic made contact with team-mate Olexandr Karavaev’s delivery, but it was just beyond the midfielder’s reach. United, by contrast, were still dominating in terms of possession, without creating any real goalscoring chances.
The game’s first shot on target came just after the hour mark, when substitute Paulinho forced Sergio Romero into a routine save with a curling effort. It was a chance nonetheless, and one which prompted Mourinho into bringing on Wayne Rooney.
Moments after his introduction, the skipper was immediately involved in United’s opener, skewing an effort into the path of Ibrahimovic, who couldn’t miss with his header at the far post from close range. The goal – Zlatan’s sixth since moving to Manchester in the summer – brought relief around Old Trafford.
Having kept the Reds at bay for so long, Zorya were visibly disappointed, and almost conceded again when Fellaini volleyed over with time running out. The away side had a late chance through Aleksandr Karavayev, but Romero saved comfortably to ensure a vital victory.
Possession: United 72% Zorya 28%
Shots: United 15 Zorya 8
On target: United 2 Zorya 1
Corners: United 9 Zorya 4
United: Romero; Fosu-Mensah (Martial 73), Bailly, Smalling, Rojo; Fellaini, Pogba; Lingard (Rooney 67), Mata (Young 73), Rashford; Ibrahimovic.
Substitutes not used: Johnstone, Carrick, Schneiderlin, Memphis.
Zorya: Shevchenko; Sivakov, Chaykovsky (Gordiyenko 80), Kamenyuka, Petriak, Kulach (Paulinho 59), Forster, Karavaev, Ljubenovic (Lipartia 76), Grechyshkin, Sobol
Substitutes not used: Chuvayev, Sukhotsky, Opanassenko, Chercher.