Manchester United seem awfully far from those famous Old Trafford European nights

Andy Mitten writes Manchester United, facing little-known Zorya Luhansk on Thursday night in a flat Europa League display, offered 'little evidence they are going to take Europe by storm any time soon'.

A banner shown at Old Tafford on Thursday night before the Europa League match between Manchester United and Zorya Luhansk. Dave Thompson / AP Photo / September 29, 2016
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When Jose Mourinho last stood on the Old Trafford touchline for a European game, his Real Madrid side beat Manchester United 2-1 in 2013 in the Uefa Champions League.

Though the result wasn’t the one the home crowd wanted, that night had everything.

With some of the finest players in the world from two of football’s greatest clubs, £35 (Dh166) match tickets sold for £500 by touts – more than for any home game in United’s history.

An enthralling encounter was sullied by Nani’s controversial sending off for United, a departure Mourinho ruthlessly exploited with a tactical shift while Sir Alex Ferguson pondered and ignored the touchline advice of his coaches.

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Ferguson was crestfallen, it would be his last ever European game and he knew it. He didn’t even face the press after.

Mourinho was unusually magnanimous and claimed the best side had lost. With an eye on the future and his own place on the United home bench, the Portuguese may have wanted to make friends and influence people himself.

It would be three years before he got that job, three of the most difficult in United’s modern history as they slipped from a team with more Champions League games than any other to one which missed out on European football altogether.

Since then United have become better accustomed to the Europa League their fans had once mocked as one Liverpool played in on a Thursday night.

The new reality was stark Thursday night. Two sections of Old Trafford were closed to reveal banks of empty red seats, while the 3,000 seats normally taken by away fans were used by local schoolchildren.

Their shrill cries of ‘United!’ were loud at the start of the game, but even they began to fade as their enthusiasm drained at watching the spectacle in front.

To their left, the 50 fans cheering for the Ukrainian side – most of them second or third generation Ukrainians who reside in the UK – watched a team playing in European football for the first time since 1972. They had much to be encouraged about as their side comprised largely of players loaned because they weren’t good enough to play for their parent club Shakhtar Donetsk – another from Eastern Ukraine which can no long play games at home since the Ukraine-Russia conflict – held their far more illustrious hosts.

“Yeah, it was difficult,” admitted Mourinho.

United were plodding and ponderous in the first half. When they were knocked out of the competition last year by Liverpool, that night at least had a raucous atmosphere.

Against Zorya you could hear the chatter of conversations rattling around the famous old stadium. A Marcus Rashford volley which shook the crossbar was the highlight of a first half which contained too few.

United came out for the second half bottom of their group. They needed the urgency shown in Saturday’s hugely impressive first half against Leicester City; instead Paul Pogba hit inaccurate passes and missed a challenge. Defenders were as poor as United’s recent form in European games - just one win in their previous seven.

The breakthrough came in the 69th minute when Wayne Rooney, who was cheered on as a substitute for Jesse Lingard, mis-hit a cross downwards towards the back post which Zlatan Ibrahimovic headed in.

It was his 57th European goal in club football and his sixth goal in ten games for his new club. United are the seventh club the Swede has scored for in European football, though he is yet to win the Champions League or the Europa League.

Given United’s form in Europe recently, there’s little evidence that they are going to take Europe by storm any time soon.

Mourinho was brought in to turn United back into a winning machine after three poor seasons. Poor in the league, poor in Europe. He’ll have better nights than last night.

“One week – three defeats, another week – three victories,” he said. “I was not depressed by the three defeats and I’m not over the moon after three victories. We have another game on Sunday (against Stoke) and that’s now the most important one.”

It is, but Old Trafford used to be famous for its European nights.

For now it’s flat as the home team scrape through against opponents few of their fans had even heard of when the draw was made.

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