He could have scored inside a minute, with the ball just eluding him at the last second, but it was an early sign that Henrikh Mkhitaryan was going to be heavily involved in the action to come. By the second half he was the driving force behind the majority of Manchester United’s attacks as they saw off Feyenoord 4-0 at Old Trafford.
The spotlight was always likely to fall on the Armenian for much of the game after Jose Mourinho’s decision to recall him to the starting line-up for the first time in 15 games. Since his curtailed appearance against Manchester City on September 10 – he was hauled off at half-time – Mkhitaryan has been told by his manager that he isn’t ready for the pressure of English football and left either on the bench or in the stands.
But on Thursday he was given his wings, starting from the left of the attacking midfield line and gradually growing into the game to deliver a performance which will leave his manager with little excuse for leaving him out of his plans going forward.
Even in the first half, he was looking lively. Some neat interplay with Wayne Rooney, exchanging a number of passes, led him towards the six-yard box but Brad Jones was able to pounce on the ball just ahead of him. He was then within a whisker of reaching a Zlatan Ibrahimovic cross at the near post, and when Paul Pogba lifted a ball over for him in the area he made Jones work once more but was flagged offside.
Mkhitaryan didn’t actually register a goal or assist despite United making hay on the scoreboard by the end, but that shouldn’t take away from his contribution. He may have faded away in a short spell during the first half, but for the most part the 27-year-old showed exactly what he is capable of. In the second 45 he was regularly finding space, running the ball in with confidence and making clever runs to ask questions of the Dutch back four.
It helped that Feyenoord were chasing the game by then, having fallen behind to Rooney’s opener from an Ibrahimovic through-ball. It was Rooney’s 39th goal in Europe for United, lifting him above Ruud van Nistelrooy to become the sole leader in the club’s history on the continent.
Ibrahimovic and Rooney linked up again for goal number two, teeing up Juan Mata to tap into an empty net, and then the Swede was involved in a third goal when his cut-back – aimed for Mkhitaryan – was turned in by the left foot of former Liverpool keeper Jones. Jesse Lingard would add a fourth from Antonio Valencia's cross in injury time.
When he was replaced by Memphis Depay in the 82nd minute he was given a standing ovation by the majority of the stadium, and he knew he had done everything he could have done to earn himself some recognition from Mourinho too.
Having waited for so long for a chance, it was important that Mkhitaryan took it. Now that he has done exactly that, the Armenian must be a key part of Mourinho's plans from now on.