Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has praised the resilience of Henrikh Mkhitaryan after the playmaker’s first goal for the club ushered them into the last 32 of the Europa League with a 2-0 win at Zorya Luhansk on Thursday night.
Mkhitaryan – making only his only fifth start, having struggled to win over Mourinho following a £26m summer transfer – put nervy United ahead against Zorya just after half-time.
On a difficult pitch hardened by freezing conditions in Odessa, striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic gambolled clear to add a late second and ensure United’s place in Monday’s draw.
Southampton failed to join them, however, after they were eliminated by Hapoel Beer Sheva.
“He has a strong mentality. He was very determined to fight against his difficult adaptation and he is doing that in the best way,” Mourinho said of Mkhitaryan.
“The talent, we knew what we were buying. He fought to improve tactically and physically, and now he is playing good in the Premier League, Europa League and the EFL Cup.”
Mkhitaryan admitted his relief at opening his account but immediately set his sights on scoring in front of a home crowd. United host Tottenham in the Premier League on Sunday.
“I was waiting a long time for this goal,” he said. “But hopefully my next goal will be at Old Trafford, because I want to score at home. It’s another pleasure to score there so I will try my best to do that.”
United unseeded for draw
United’s win was not enough to pip Fenerbahce to first place in Group A, with the Turkish side prevailing in Feyenoord, meaning they will not be seeded for next week’s last 32 draw.
The visitors laboured their attempts to penetrate the Ukrainians in a first period most notable for speculative long-range attempts by Paul Pogba and Wayne Rooney.
Mkhitaryan provided the urgency United needed in the 48th minute, however, running at Zorya and then darting between two defenders before placing a finish into the bottom-right corner.
Mourinho endured a scare when centre-back Eric Bailly required lengthy treatment after a heavy collision on his first match following a five-week injury lay-off, but was cleared to continue.
Ibrahimovic punished Zorya two minutes from time as they threw men forward in search of an equaliser, gathering Pogba’s smart first-time pass and stroking past Igor Levchenko.
Southampton eliminated in late drama
Southampton, meanwhile, crashed out with a 1-1 draw at home to Hapoel, which was enough to send the Israeli team through on away goals scored.
Saints defender Virgil van Dijk set up a grandstand finish by equalising Maor Bar Buzaglo’s opening goal in stoppage time, but Maya Yoshida missed a chance to rescue the home side’s campaign when he headed wide just seconds later.