Manchester United reached the Europa League knockout stages by beating Zorya Luhansk as Henrikh Mkhitaryan struck a fine first goal for the club.
The Red Devils dominated in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, but long-range efforts from Wayne Rooney and Paul Pogba were their best moments despite having 76% of first- half possession.
But Mkhitaryan, who has now started three games in a row, dribbled from halfway to apply a cool finish after the break.
A key save from Sergio Romero maintained the lead before Zlatan Ibrahimovic raced clear to slot home as United progressed behind Fenerbahce, who won at Feyenoord.
Jose Mourinho’s side are now favourites for the competition with most bookmakers but in finishing second in Group A, they go into Monday’s last-32 draw as an unseeded side. Manchester United’s possible opponents Europa League group winners: Apoel Nicosia, Saint-Etienne, Zenit Saint Petersburg, Roma, Athletic Bilbao, Ajax, Shakhtar Donetsk, Schalke, Fiorentina, Sparta Prague, Osmanlispor Seeded sides out of Champions League: FC Copenhagen, Lyon, Besiktas
The good news for Manchester United fans United ground out a first win away from home in the Europa League this season on a pitch he described as “difficult” leading up to the fixture.
Though their final ball was often slack – leading to some visible Mourinho frustration in the first half – they stuck to the task, none more so than Mkhitaryan, who showed balance and poise to create his goal. His haul of a goal and two assists in his run of three starts begs the question as to why Mourinho has not used him regularly since a £26m summer move. But United fans are starting to see the type of quality which saw him named Bundesliga players’ player of the season ahead of his move to Old Trafford.
More positives arrive in the fact players such as David De Gea and Anthony Martial were rested – United face Tottenham on Sunday – while Ibrahimovic’s form is gathering momentum – his late finish was his sixth goal in seven matches.
The sight of central defender Eric Bailly completing a fixture for the first time since October will also please Mourinho. The Ivorian – out with a knee injury since October – looked composed, decisive and even shook off a nasty collision to continue late on.
The downside (depending on how you look at it) An away trip to the rugged surroundings of Zorya Luhansk perhaps sums up the burden this competition can become.
The Thursday-Sunday fixture cycle will continue for Mourinho, notably with a trip to Manchester City three days after the second leg of their last-32 fixture on 23 February.
Only on three occasions has an English side finished in the top four of the Premier League when they started the campaign in Europa League competition.
United are nine points off the Premier League’s Champions League qualification places. So does Mourinho prioritise the league or a Europa League run and the Champions League berth that comes with the trophy? History shows it is difficult to achieve both.
Man of the match – Henrikh Mkhitaryan