Flowering of Mkhitaryan spells good news for Manchester United
REUTERS - The blossoming of Henrikh Mkhitaryan may have come a little late in the year for Jose Mourinho's liking but the Armenian's winter revival feels like the signing of a brand new weapon for Manchester United.
Both the manager and Mkhitaryan's team mates were left wholly enthused as the midfielder's performance in the Europa League win at Zorya Luhansk on Thursday, capped by his lovely first goal for the club, felt like a definitive breakthrough.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic seemed to echo the widespread feeling that Mkhitarayan, who had such a hesitant start to life at Old Trafford, was really now ready to show why United paid 26 million pounds ($32.78 million) for him.
"The goal was magnificent," Ibrahimovic told MUTV, drooling over Mkhitaryan's solo effort in which he slalomed forward, nutmegged a defender and slid home an accomplished finish.
"Henrikh had speed and control all the way, and the timing to put it through the defender's legs, it was beautiful. I'm very happy for him because he's a quality player and I hope he continues. I know he will," Ibrahimovic said.
It was exactly the sort of skill Mourinho knew he had bought when signing the Bundesliga player of the year from Borussia Dortmund but he sidelined Mkhitaryan after substituting him at halftime in his woeful debut against Manchester City in September.
Feeling he was finding it difficult to adjust to the pace and physicality of the English game, Mourinho left out Mkhitaryan, who also struggled with injury, for 11 games and warned that he must do more to earn his place in the side.
Yet since being eased back into the team, first as substitute at Fenerbahce in the Europa League last month, he has gradually made his mark and now looks in pole position to start against Tottenham Hotspur in Sunday's big Premier League clash.
Mourinho's harsh tune has softened significantly.
"He has a strong mentality. He was determined to fight against his difficult adaptation and he's doing that in the best way," the manager said after the Zorya victory.
"If you work really hard physically, and technically, we knew the talent was there. Now he is playing good in the Premier League and in the Europa League, now the goal means a bit more happiness for him."
Mkhitaryan, though, knows what real happiness will be.
"My next goal has to be at Old Trafford because I want to score at home," he said.
(Reporting by Ian Chadband, editing by Ed Osmond)