Manchester United may be favourites to lift the Europa League come the end of the season but Jose Mourinho is taking nothing for granted against Rostov – and rightly so.
Reacting in the immediate aftermath of the draw, the Special One described the tie as bad “in every aspect”.
“They have a very good Champions League campaign, they beat Ajax and Anderlecht in playoffs. And in the group phase, a difficult group with Bayern and Atletico, they managed good results against them.”
The Portuguese has every reason to feel apprehensive given those results and Rostov’s current form.
Rostov are on a run of four games unbeaten in Europe – their best ever run on the continent – while they are also undefeated at home in the Russian Premier League after 18 games and have lost just one of their last seven European games at Olimp-2.
In the knockout stages of a major European competition for the first time in their history, in truth Rostov have done remarkably well to get here, finishing third in their Champions League group behind Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich but ahead of PSV Eindhoven.
Solid, defensive displays in back-to-back draws against the Dutch outfit suggest the Russians will look to keep things tight at the back.
But United will need to be wary of Rostov’s counter-attacking qualities – something Bayern will no doubt attest to.
The Russian outfit sealed Europa League qualification with a 3-2 victory over the Germans in a game that highlighted Rostov’s attacking qualities.
In Sardar Azmoun, the former Rubin Kazan youngster once dubbed the “Iranian Messi”, Rostov have a pacey attacker who is not only capable of leading a quickfire counter attack but possesses the necessary skills and finishing abilities to cause United serious problems.
He’s perfectly complemented by Rostov’s other notable attacking outlet, Dmitri Poloz, who has been involved in seven of the Selmashi’s last 11 goals in Europe scoring five and assisting two.
Both players were on target against Bayern but it was the team’s creative midfield hub, Christian Noboa, who bagged the winner with a sublime free kick.
Highly effective when either shooting or assisting from dead ball situations, the Ecuadorian will be expected to pull the strings and will have no nerves about facing United, having previously impressed for Rubin Kazan in the Europa League against Tottenham a few years back.
Despite their defensive qualities, with veteran Spaniard Cesar Navas marshalling things at the back and the team’s counter attacking threat, Rostov actually head into the game in a rich vein of goalscoring form.
The Selmashi’s 4-0 home victory over Sparta Prague in the last round was their biggest ever win in European competition while they warmed up for the visit of United with a 6-0 win against Tom Tomsk.
Mourinho will undoubtedly unleash Zlatan Ibrahimovic for this fixture, given his impending suspension but a couple of Rostov’s old guard won’t be too worried.
Noboa and Navas were both part of the Rubin side that defeated Barcelona in the Champions League back in 2009 and, having kept a younger, fresher Zlatan in their pockets for much of that game, a repeat isn’t out of the question.
FC Rostov Predicted line-up: Medvedev – Kalachev, Mevlja, Navas, Granat, Kudryashov – Erokhin, Noboa, Gatcan – Poloz, Azmoun
RFN Prediction: 1-0 victory to FC Rostov.