Juan Mata scored the winner as Manchester United secured a place in the quarter-finals of the Europa League at the expense of FC Rostov with a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford.
The Spaniard clipped home from close range as Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s low cross was flicked into his path by Zlatan Ibrahimovic with 20 minutes remaining as the dominant Reds ensured progression to the last eight of the competition with a 2-1 aggregate scoreline.
In doing so, Jose Mourinho’s men maintained this season’s unbeaten home record in Europe and await Friday’s draw in Switzerland with interest.
After navigating difficult terrain in Rostov-on-Don last week to claim a creditable 1-1 draw in the first leg, it was back to the more familiar surroundings under the floodlights at the Theatre of Dreams for the Reds.
Mourinho insisted the players would be ready for a third game in eight days despite the quick turnaround and fielded a strong line-up, boasting four changes from Monday’s Emirates FA Cup defeat at Chelsea.
It was evident from the outset that United, like in the first leg, began with a three-man defence to match Rostov’s formation, with Antonio Valencia and Daley Blind operating as wing-backs in a fluid system.
It was from a Blind corner the Reds almost took the lead inside four minutes as Marcos Rojo met the Dutchman’s delivery with a firm header, which Rostov stopper Nikita Medvedev parried straight to Ibrahimovic but the striker, lurking with intent at the back post, could only hit the post from a tight angle via a touch from the keeper.
United’s positive attacking intent continued as Ibrahimovic had a free-kick well blocked by Andrei Prepelita before seeing a shot touched over by Medvedev after rounding the keeper when released by a delightful forward pass from Mata.
The Reds strongly appealed for a penalty on 26 minutes when Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who scored the crucial away goal in the first leg, appeared to be shoved in the back by the Rostov keeper when competing for a high ball but Lithuanian referee Gediminas Mazeika ignored the claims.
With the Reds bossing both possession and territory, it seemed only a matter of time before the breakthrough would come.
It almost arrived on two occasions when, firstly, Mata’s intelligent first-time pass released Mkhitaryan in behind the visitors’ defence but his lobbed effort dropped agonisingly wide of the post. Then, at the end of another free-flowing move, Ibrahimovic checked inside in the box and unleashed an unstoppable shot which rebounded off the right-hand post.
There was still time for Paul Pogba, an ever-present for United in this season’s Europa League, to draw a fine save from Medvedev from a 20-yard curler as a frustrating first half came to an end, albeit the Reds were safe in the knowledge that a goalless scoreline on the night would be enough to go through on the away goals rule.
HALF-TIME MATCH STATS
Possession: United 78% Rostov 22%
Shots: United 12 Rostov 0
Shots on target: United 2 Rostov 0
Corners: United 6 Rostov 0
United were forced into an early change just three minutes after the restart as Pogba came off with an injury and was replaced by Marouane Fellaini.
The same pattern resumed with the Reds in complete control of proceedings but Rostov almost took a surprise lead when dangerman Sardar Azmoun struck a fierce effort from the edge of the box which Sergio Romero repelled before the keeper fielded another shot from Miha Mevlja.
At the other end, Antonio Valencia’s cross picked out Ibrahimovic, who got in front of Cesar Navas to guide a header over the crossbar.
The Reds had to make another enforced alteration as Blind came off shortly after receiving treatment, with Phil Jones entering the fray and Marcos Rojo switching to left wing-back.
The resurgent visitors, currently seventh in the Russian Premier League, began to offer more of a threat which opened the game up in United’s favour and the Reds’ patience was rewarded in the 70th minute.
A quick break saw Mkhitaryan released down the right and the Armenian’s pinpoint low cross, which was flicked on by Ibrahimovic, was converted at the back post by Mata, who consequently took his goal tally into double figures for the season in all competitions.
United continued on the front foot in search of more goals but Rostov almost snatched a leveller which could have changed the complexion when substitute Aleksandr Bukharov, who scored the equaliser last week, flicked on Fedor Kudryashov’s cross but Romero made a stunning reaction save to parry the ball behind.
It was a nervy ending for the hosts, who were indebted to Romero for making a flying save from Rostov captain Christian Noboa’s free-kick from 25 yards with the last kick of the game but United held on to advance to the next round and take a step closer to another cup final.
The Reds will conclude a busy seven days with a trip to the Riverside Stadium on Sunday to face managerless Middlesbrough in the Premier League (kick-off 12:00 GMT).
FULL-TIME MATCH STATS
Possession: United 69% Rostov 31%
Shots: United 18 Rostov 5
Shots on target: United 4 Rostov 3
Corners: United 6 Rostov 2
United: Romero; Valencia, Bailly, Smalling (c), Rojo, Blind (Jones 64); Herrera, Pogba (Fellaini 47); Mkhitaryan, Mata; Ibrahimovic.
Subs not used: De Gea (GK), Young, Carrick, Lingard, Rashford.
Rostov: Medvedev; Bayramyan (Kireev 81), Mevlja, Navas, Kudryashov, Terentyev; Noboa (c), Prepelita (Devic 79), Erokhin; Azmoun (Bukharov 61), Poloz.
Subs not used: Goshev (GK).