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Mkhitaryan earns high praise from Mourinho

AAP logoAAP 8/12/2016 Simon Peach

Jose Mourinho heaped praise on the ever-improving Henrikh Mkhitaryan after Manchester United's summer signing opened his account with a fine goal that helped secure progress to the Europa League knockout stages.

So outstanding for Borussia Dortmund over recent years, the 27-year-old's initial struggles to make the squad, never mind the starting line-up, puzzled onlookers.

Mourinho explained that Mkhitaryan was still getting used to the rigours of English football, but his frustration at the player was clear when saying last month that the Armenian had to "do more".

The attacking midfielder appears to have heeded that advice, appearing in a fifth successive United match and scoring a fine solo goal to open the scoring at Zorya Luhansk.

Mkhitaryan's goal early in the first half was complemented by a late Zlatan Ibrahimovic strike in Ukraine, wrapping up a 2-0 win that saw Mourinho's men progress from Group A as runners-up.

"He has a strong mentality," Mourinho said. "He was very determined to fight against his difficult adaptation, and he's doing that in the best way.

"He worked really hard physically, tactically and the talent we know is there. The talent we knew what we were buying.

"He fought to improve tactically, he fought to improve physically, and now he is playing good in the Premier League, good in the Europa League and the EFL Cup, and now evolving a bit more happiness for him, so I'm very pleased."

That satisfaction also goes for his side's display in difficult conditions in Odessa, securing a place in Monday's last-32 draw having emerged unscathed on a poor pitch.

Players complained of the surface being like rock as their studs clacked on the frozen surface on the eve of the match at the Chornomorets Stadium, but UEFA deemed it playable after overnight heating and two pitch inspections.

"The pitch was better today than yesterday and good enough to pay football on and we appreciate the efforts to give us a good pitch," Mourinho said.

"There are no miracles in this cold weather, we know it's difficult to have a good pitch, so we appreciate the efforts to give us a good surface."

Fenerbahce required a point in Rotterdam to reach the last 32 and took all three to finish top of the standings.

Feyenoord needed to win by two goals but were undone in the 22nd minute when Moussa Sow found the net with a bicycle kick to continue his habit of producing acrobatic strikes following his overhead effort against United earlier in the group stage.

Villarreal progressed, ending the hopes of Steaua Bucharest, with a 2-1 triumph over the former European champions in Group L.

Goals from Nicola Sansone and an 88th-minute winner from Manuel Trigueros, following Vlad Achim's leveller for Steaua, propelled the Spaniards to second place while the Romanians finished bottom.

Dundalk's hopes of becoming the first Irish side to grace the knockout stages of a European competition were dashed by a 2-1 defeat at Maccabi Tel Aviv in Group D where AZ Alkmaar beat Zenit St Petersburg 3-2 to join the Russians in the last 32.

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