Mkhitaryan on target as Man Utd make Europa League last 32
United's European run will continue - is it their best chance of Champions League qualification or a curse?
Zorya Luhansk 0 Manchester United 2
Thursday night football will continue in 2017 for Manchester United after they beat Zorya Luhansk to secure second spot in their Europa League group, finishing one point behind Fenerbahce.
The Turkish side's 1-0 win away at Feyenoord ensured they topped the group, while United will enter Monday's Last 32 draw prepared to meet any of group winners in the knockout phase, or Copenhagen, Lyon or Besiktas, all of whom are now in the Europa League having been knocked out of the Champions League.
Prior to the match against Zorya, Jose Mourinho had criticised both the state of the frozen pitch and the wisdom of Uefa in scheduling a match in the Ukraine in the middle of December where temperatures are routinely well below zero.
Nonetheless the match at Odessa's Chornomorets Stadium passed off without any difficulty, although there was a distinct lack of action in a first-half dominated by the visitors. Resting a few key players, including David de Gea and Anthony Martial, Mourinho started with central defender Eric Bailly, as the Ivorian returned for his first full game since his knee injury in October.
The United manager was also heartened by the form of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who opened the scoring on 48 minutes with his first goal for the club, a solo effort that demonstrated why United paid £26m for his services in the summer.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with assistance from Paul Pogba, added a second two minutes from time - his fifth goal in four matches - as the visitors eased into the knockout phase and extended their unbeaten run in all competitions to seven matches.
"I was waiting a long time for this goal," said Mkhitaryan, who's taken a few months to find his feet at United. "My next goal has to be at Old Trafford because I want to score at home." Admitting that he and teammates had found the first-half "a little difficult", Mkhitaryan added: "We could not find the last pass but in the second half we created space for the wingers and the strikers."
But how pleased will United really be with their progression to the last 32? As the BBC Sport points out, only three times "has an English side finished in the top four of the Premier League when they started the campaign in the Europa League".
Whoever United play in the next round of the competition on Thursday February 23, three days later they'll travel to the Etihad to face Manchester City in the Premier League. But with his side already nine points off the Premier League's Champions League qualification places, perhaps Jose Mourinho realises that his best bet for securing qualification for Europe's showpiece tournament next season is to win the Europa League in May.
Mourinho gives Uefa an icy blast over frozen pitch
Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho has not cut a happy figure in recent weeks and the December weather in Ukraine has done little to brighten his mood.
United are due to play Zorya Luhansk in Odessa in the Europa League tonight, but a cold snap has left much of the pitch frozen. However, Uefa is optimistic the game can go ahead after a pitch inspection at 10am local time, ten hours ahead of kick-off.
"The pitch is at its coldest now, it's only going to get warmer as the day goes on," said an official, who confirmed the pitch had softened after being covered with a giant plastic sheet overnight.
"The final decision, though, will be made by referee Tamas Bognar from Hungary, who will inspect the pitch again before kick-off to ensure there are no frozen areas," reports the Daily Telegraph.
"Should the game be cancelled, United will have to stay in Ukraine for another night in the hope that their final group game can be played on Friday instead. That would put their Premier League fixture against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on Sunday in doubt as manager Jose Mourinho will not want to play two games in 48 hours, particularly as the players have to fly from the other side of the continent to get back to Manchester after the game."
Mourinho delivered "an icy blast" to Uefa over the issue, reports The Times, complaining that scheduling matches in Ukraine in December is asking for trouble.
Not only is he concerned about the impact of a postponement, the game itself "may turn out to be one of the most important matches of United's season", says the Times. "Mourinho's side will suffer a humiliating exit from their Europa League group if they lose to Zorya and Feyenoord beat Fenerbahce."
That is not the end of United's problems. "Security concerns have also dominated the build up to the game, which is being played 460 miles west of Zorya's home city because Luhansk is deemed unsafe," says the Times. Fans from other teams have been attacked in Odessa and United have warned their supporters to be on their guard.