If Manchester United win this year's Europa League, this is the chapter of the commemorative DVD everyone will inevitably skip. The 1-1 draw in Rostov on Thursday was a very professional performance, but when it came to the quality on show we cannot say Jose Mourinho had not warned us.
“It’s hard for me to believe we are going to play on that field… if you can call it a field,” said the United boss on Wednesday, and in the event he got it spot on.
The state of the pitch at the Olimp-2 stadium made decent football impossible. The dusty, bouncy surface dictated that both Rostov and United were compromised in their play, and the result was a contest which belied UEFA’s insistence that the Europa League is a competition to be taken seriously. This was a pitch barely fit for Sunday League park football.
Less than 24 hours after one of the greatest adverts for European football you could wish to see in Barcelona, we were treated to one of the worst. But United were composed enough to play the conditions well. In the first half they completed passes at a lower rate than in any other 45-minute period under Mourinho this season, but still they went in at the break 1-0 up.
Mourinho had chosen a five-man back line as a result of the pitch, deciding to bolster his defence and go for a more direct, resourceful approach with Marouane Fellaini recalled in midfield and Henrikh Mkhitaryan asked to sweep between the midfield and front-man Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The plan worked superbly, and when Mkhitaryan finished off a move which involved a great piece of chest control by Fellaini at its genesis and a lovely flick by Ibrahimovic on the bye-line, United had the precious away goal which changed the face of the tie.
They were unable to hold out for the win, Timofei Kalachev’s long ball leaving Phil Jones in two minds and catching Chris Smalling under the ball as Aleksandr Bukharov drifted clear to fire past Sergio Romero. The remainder of the match was about trying to keep their feet as what passed for soil gave way at regular intervals.
All things considered, the draw remains a positive result. In the two-legged nature of Europa League football a 1-1 scoreline away from home is nothing to be sniffed at. The abysmal pitch multiplied the need to just get the job done and get home by 100. Mourinho will just be happy to board the plane back to Manchester without too much damage being done both metaphorically and physically.
It was a situation which threw up too many variables for Mourinho and United. Individual performances were not great as a whole, but it was always going to be a night for buckling down, playing the conditions, and worrying not about the personal imprint left on the fixture but on the result gained.
United were joined in Russia by a hardy band of 238 supporters who had made various convoluted trips to be in attendance, and while they deserved a far greater exhibition for their troubles than the one which was served up they can be more than satisfied with the way their side went about their job.
It was a hugely forgettable evening, but the important thing is that United came out of it unscathed.