After watching Henrikh Mkhitaryan struggle to come to terms with his opening Premier League experience against Manchester City in September, Jose Mourinho had all but made up his mind. The Armenian was simply not ready, according to his Manchester United manager.
In the ensuing months Mourinho laid down an almighty challenge to the attacker, asking him to prove his worth to the club without the benefit of game time. But his recent re-emergence in the United first team has seen him flourish and on Thursday against Zorya Luhansk it was his moment of magic which eased the Reds’ path through to the Europa League knockout phase on their way to a 2-0 win.
Mkhitaryan’s inclusion against Feyenoord in their previous European fixture had inspired United to victory, and successive positive displays against West Ham and Everton ensured he was again included in the trip to Odessa. In familiar surroundings – he had previously netted a hat-trick at the Chornomorets Stadium when playing for Shakhtar Donetsk – Mkhitaryan was a constant thorn in Zorya’s side as United dominated for long spells.
His vision helped to stretch a compact home defence at times, and on a pitch riven with bobbles in the freezing cold temperatures, the 27-year-old was about the only player that seemed confident enough to run with the ball at anything approaching top speed.
It would be just such a break which would be the decisive moment of the evening just after half-time, with Mkhitaryan picking the ball up just inside the Zorya half after Marcos Rojo’s interception. He proceeded to carry possession forward against a retreating home side, before committing the last two defenders and slotting beyond goalkeeper Igor Levchenko.
On a night when United simply had to get there, get the job done and get out, Mkhitaryan delivered the magic moment.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic added a late second from a wonderful Paul Pogba assist shortly after Mkhitaryan had been given a tremendous ovation from both sets of supporters as he was replaced by Tim Fosu-Mensah. United deserved at least that two-goal margin, but without their Armenian midfielder they might have had to work so much harder to achieved what their dominance had earned.
United finish second in group A and will not be seeded in Monday’s draw, but Mourinho insisted before the game that seedings are over-rated. All he cared about was that his side delivered him a place in the last 32 and Mkhitaryan made sure that happened.
After a number of setbacks in the league for United, and a period of great uncertainty for the former Borussia Dortmund man, they both have some good news.
With Mkhitaryan at the heart of things, United have achieved their first goal in Europe this term. Now to transforming their league form, with the man of the moment now sure to be a key feature of their top-four bid.