Manchester United were denied victory in the Europa League Round of 16 first leg against FC Rostov but will lay claim to gaining a slender advantage after Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored an important away goal.
The fit-again Armenian scored for the third successive Europa League away game this season, converting from close range 10 minutes before half-time to put the Reds in the ascendency.
Aleksandr Bukharov equalised early in the second period as the hosts grew into the game but, in tricky conditions at the Olimp-2 stadium in southern Russia, Jose Mourinho’s side delivered a professional performance and, against a side with an erratic away record, will be confident of finishing the job in next week’s second leg at Old Trafford.
Following the concerns he expressed about the condition of the pitch, Mourinho made seven changes to his side, with Ashley Young and Daley Blind deployed as wing-backs to counter Rostov’s similar formation.
The uneven playing surface and swirling wind contributed to a scrappy game, punctuated by a real moment of quality for the opening goal, which came out of the blue after an almost chanceless opening half-hour.
Marouane Fellaini controlled a long cross-field pass from Phil Jones on his chest and found Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who cut the ball back from the touchline for Mkhitaryan to stroke home. It was no doubt appreciated by the sizeable Armenian contingent in the crowd, not to mention the 238 hardy United fans tucked into one corner of the ground.
Possession: Rostov 41% United 59%
Shots at goal: Rostov 4 United 4
Shots on target: Rostov 3 United 1
Corners: Rostov 1 United 2
Ibrahimovic flashed over from the edge of the ‘D’ early in the second period and Young hit a first-time shot just wide as United threatened to take control.
But Rostov finally came alive as they, like United, scored from their first real opportunity, with Bukharov latching onto a nicely-weighted ball over the top from Timofei Kalachev to control and blast past Sergio Romero.
Aleksandr Erokhin had a penalty appeal turned down by referee Felix Zwayer, who booked six players on the night, and the same player poked wide of Romero’s goal soon after, before goalscorer Mkhitaryan was replaced by Anthony Martial.
As the referee continued to penalise infringements on a regular basis, neither side was able to find much fluency in the closing stages, though the home side arguably shaded the second half, with Erokhin poking a decent opportunity off target and Aleksandr Gatskan testing Romero from distance, so United may therefore be satisfied to go back to Manchester on level terms.
Possession: Rostov 49% United 51%
Shots at goal: Rostov 9 United 9
Shots on target: Rostov 5 United 2
Corners: Rostov 2 United 4
United: Romero, Young, Jones, Smalling, Rojo, Blind (Valencia 90), Pogba, Fellaini, Herrera (Carrick 90), Mkhitaryan (Martial 67), Ibrahimovic. Subs not used: De Gea, Lingard, Mata, Rashford.
Booked: Mkhitaryan, Herrera
Rostov: Medvedev, Kalachev, Mevlja, Navas, Granat (Terentyev 18), Kudryashov, Noboa, Erokhin, Gatskan, Bukharov (Azmoun 74), Poloz. Subs not used: Goshev, Kireev, Bayramyan, Prepelita.
Booked: Gatskan, Bukharov, Noboa, Kalachev