Zlatan Ibrahimovic has spent the last fifteen years avoiding the Europa League, but just when he appeared set to be dragged down by the ignominy of a dalliance with the Champions League’s ugly sister, he rescued Manchester United from the embarrassment of a stalemate against Zorya Luhansk. Not since facing FC Copenhagen with Ajax in 2001 has Ibrahimovic started in the Europa League, or the Uefa Cup as it once was. But on a night when Jose Mourinho’s United threatened to send Old Trafford to sleep, Ibrahimovic delivered when it mattered with a 67th minute goal which settled a dismal Group A encounter.
There can be no denying that Europa League nights are greeted with as much enthusiasm at United as a trip to the dentists. The official line from Mourinho and the club hierarchy is that it remains European football and that the ultimate prize is silverware with a free pass into next season’s Champions League. Having invested £150m in the squad this summer, United will expect to secure a return to the Champions League through the Premier League rather than place all their chips on winning this competition, which remains the only major trophy to elude the club. But United are in it as a result of their fifth-placed finish last season and, if Thursday nights are a necessary evil, Mourinho and his players simply have to make the best of it. But don’t let anyone kid you that United want to be contesting fixtures with the likes of Zorya Luhansk.
Sixty years after meeting Anderlecht in the club’s European fixture, Zorya claimed the distinction of being United’s 100th European opponents, but the fact it was in the Europa League rather than Champions League summed up United’s fall from grace in recent years. They have gone from A-Z and ended up down a dead end street.
Rooney was named among the substitutes for the second game running (Reuters But despite the second-billing 24 hours after Manchester City’s pulsating Champions League clash with Celtic in Glasgow, Mourinho selected a strong team, refusing to make wholesale changes ahead of Sunday’s league encounter with Stoke City. Wayne Rooney, one short of equalling Ruud van Nistelrooy’s club record of 37 European goals, remained on the bench alongside Michael Carrick, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic once again starting up front.
Ibrahimovic, accustomed to regular Champions League football throughout his career, saw a deflected effort fly over the bar on 19 minutes in United’s first effort on goal. But aside from that half-chance, United struggled to land a blow on the team currently sitting second in the Ukrainian top flight. Marcus Rashford struck the crossbar and Juan Mata and Marouane both headed over, but there was little else of note from a turgid first-half. United lacked any kind of spark or energy, save for the occasional flash of invention from Rashford.
United laboured against their Ukrainian opponents for much of the evening. With Fellaini in midfield, rather than Carrick, Mourinho’s team struggle to pass the ball forward and build momentum and with Zorya content to build of wall of ten black shirts behind the ball, it was tough going for United. It was as dismal as anything witnessed under Louis van Gaal last season, when the Stretford End would regularly break into chants of ‘attack, attack, attack’ in response to the Dutchman’s cautious approach. And it will not be long before the demands are made of Mourinho’s teams if they continue to play with such a pedestrian approach.
Mourinho’s only tactic to liven his players up was to instruct Rooney, Ashley Young and Anthony Martial to warm-up before eventually introducing England captain Rooney into the action on 65 minutes. After seeing Zorya substitute Paulinho force a full-stretch save from Sergio Romero on 66 minutes, Mourinho had had enough and he summoned Rooney off the bench in an effort to inject some attacking threat into his team. And the change had an instant effect, albeit a fortuitous one, when Rooney inadvertently provided the assist for Ibrahimovic to break the deadlock.
Timothy Fosu-Mensah’s cross from the byline picked out Rooney on the edge of the six-yard box, but the United captain could only scuff his half-volley into the ground. The ball bounced up towards the far post, though, where the towering Ibrahimovic was able to climb above the Zorya defenders to head home from a tight angle. It was the Swede’s sixth goal in eight starts for United since his free transfer arrival from Paris Saint-Germain in the summer and it may yet prove to be crucial to the club’s hopes of ultimately progressing from Group A. But if this is what Thursday nights in the Europa League are going to be like, you have to wonder whether they really want to.