Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored a second-half winner to give Manchester United a 1-0 win over Zorya Luhansk in the Europa League
Wayne Rooney came on as a second-half substitute and helped Manchester United break down a stubborn Ukrainian defence with his first touch of the ball. Those are the bald facts, though they do not quite tell the whole story.
Rooneys first touch was actually a terrible one, presented with an opportunity from close to the penalty spot by Timothy Fosu-Mensahs cut back from the right, he stabbed his shot into the ground and managed to miss the target, yet succeeded in surprising the Zorya defence as well as the Old Trafford crowd. With the goalkeeper off balance and bizarrely standing in his own net Zlatan Ibrahimovic had the presence of mind to nod the loose ball over the line and United had a pressure-relieving goal they barely deserved.
This was not the prettiest of wins after the confidence-boosting goals at the weekend, but United can now claim, and Jos Mourinho certainly will, to have answered their three-match losing run with three successive victories.
We deserved to win but it was difficult, Mourinho said. Wayne was laughing about the goal afterwards, he said he made a great assist, but he gave us what we needed at the time, a second presence in the box.
Mourinho was as good as his word when it came to selecting a team strong enough to win the match. He rested his goalkeeper and both full-backs and again named Rooney on the bench, but apart from a start for Marouane Fellaini the front half of the side was the same as the won that won so handsomely against Leicester.
That meant United had the pace on the flanks that Mourinho felt was so important, though with Zorya predictably packing men behind the ball from the outset the home side struggled to find sufficient space to use it. Almost 20 minutes had passed by the time Jesse Lingard got the chance to run into an empty half, only to fail to find Marcus Rashford with his cross. Rashford did get a chance to open the scoring a couple of minutes later when a half-cleared corner came his way, but a well-struck shot from close range struck the underside of the bar and bounced down on the line without crossing it.
Mourinho is not supposed to be all that keen on this competition, yet he is keenly aware United cannot afford to open it with two defeats and he certainly seemed animated enough midway through the first half, when his protests at a perceived dive by Ivan Petryak turned into a brief technical-area spat with the opposing coach Yuriy Vernydub. United were playing patiently and constructively enough but too often failing to find the right final pass.
Paul Pogba initially began with some promising passing from midfield, picking out Rashford on a couple of occasions and generally moving the ball around crisply, though towards the end of the first half there seemed some confusion over where he was meant to be playing. At times he found himself further forward than Lingard, who kept having to drop deep in search of the ball. For all that, a decent cross by Pogba five minutes from the interval might have led to an opening goal. Unfortunately it was Mata on the end of it, not Rashford or Ibrahimovic, and his header flew too high.
That was the first of a flurry of chances right at the end of the first half from which United really should have taken the lead. Ibrahimovic teed up Lingard with a headed knockdown only to see the winger produce an air shot. Lingard did much better when Marcos Rojo crossed from the left but saw Rafael Forster fling himself in the way of a goalbound effort, then Ibrahimovic himself missed when scoring looked easier, failing to tap Matas low cross over the line from a distance of a couple of feet.
For all Uniteds possession and passing Oleksii Shevchenko did not have a save to make until the goal arrived, and though the crowd remained supportive rather than restless it was all a little too reminiscent of the Louis van Gaal era for comfort. Zorya were not exactly peppering Sergio Romeros goal either, though on their sporadic attack they looked to have players capable of being effective on the break. When Oleksandr Karavaev sent over an inviting cross five minutes into the second half, Zeljko Ljubenovic was not far away from meeting it with a volley in the middle.
After Fellaini dispossessed Dmytro Grechyshkin with unusual neatness and precision Pogba almost played Lingard in with a slick through ball, the goalkeeper just coming out in time to avert the danger. Minutes after that Romero had to make his first save of the evening, diving to his right to keep out a curling shot from the substitute Paulinho.
When Rooney replaced Lingard for the final quarter he was given the warmest of welcomes, though by that stage the crowd was probably prepared to cheer anything. He played his part in breaking the deadlock in any event, even if it was not quite the way he had intended.
It should have been a draw, the goal we gave away was a bit of a silly one, Vernydub said. We played at the same level as United, and they are supposed to be world class. He was right on two or three of those counts; possibly overgenerous with the last.