To Russia with love for Manchester United's Mkhitaryan

Tom WILLIAMS
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Manchester United's Henrikh Mkhitaryan (L) fights for the ball with Basel's Taulant Xhaka during their UEFA Champions League Group A match, in Manchester, on September 12, 2017

Trips to Russia have traditionally been seen as complicated assignments for English clubs, but Henrikh Mkhitaryan will have little trouble acclimatising when Manchester United visit CSKA Moscow this week.

The speedy attacking midfielder was born in Yerevan in January 1989 when the Armenian capital was still part of the Soviet Union.

He speaks fluent, accent-free Russian, the legacy both of a maternal grandmother from Moscow and the four years he spent in the Russian-speaking Ukrainian city of Donetsk with first Metalurg and then Shakhtar.

"My grandmother is from Moscow. I spoke a lot of Russian with her at home," Mkhitaryan told the Shakhtar Donetsk website in 2013.

"It's probably thanks to my grandmother's help that I don't have an accent any more, which is a good thing!"

United tackle CSKA at VEB Arena in the Champions League on Wednesday, looking to build on their 3-0 home win over Basel in their opening Group A fixture.

Mkhitaryan, 28, scored on their previous visit to Russia in March, his away goal at FC Rostov paving the way for a 2-1 aggregate win in the Europa League last 16.

The former Borussia Dortmund player proved something of a lucky charm for United in the competition.

His six goals in the tournament included one in each leg of the quarter-final against Anderlecht and the predatory close-range finish, early in the second half, that rubberstamped their 2-0 win over Ajax in the final in Stockholm.

"The game of my life was last season's Europa League final," he said.

"That's because it was the first European trophy for me and the first one ever for an Armenian footballer.

"No one from Armenia had ever been able to reach that level before. To play in a European final and to score, too, made it one of the best games I have played."

- Slow start -

Mkhitaryan had missed United's win over Southampton in the League Cup final through injury and his goal-scoring turn against Ajax supplied a golden end to what had initially been a difficult maiden campaign.

A £26 million ($35.2 million, 29.5 million euros) signing from Dortmund, he made his first start in a high-stakes derby against Pep Guardiola's Manchester City at Old Trafford in early September.

But he played so poorly, and looked so off the pace, that he was substituted at half-time.

He did not return to the starting XI until early December and it was not until the season's second half that he became a first-team fixture.

His decisive Europa League displays had the triple effect of cementing his place in the team, charming United's fans and helping the club secure a return to the Champions League.

Now he is a central figure, his surging runs a thrilling component of United's play, and with five assists in his first six Premier League games, he has already comfortably surpassed his tally of one from last season.

With Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard also vying for a starting place, there is no shortage of competition for the three attacking midfield berths behind striker Romelu Lukaku.

But Mkhitaryan is the only member of that quintet to have started all six of United's league games to date and with Paul Pogba currently injured, his creativity is now even more important to manager Jose Mourinho.

"He understands me and, to be honest, I understand him," Mourinho said last month.

"In the beginning of last season, if he understood me better, then he would have started better. But, at the same time, if I understood him better, I would probably have helped him in a faster way than I did.

"We spent our time together, working together, learning (about) each other.

"I believe, with his talent, that this season is going to be even better."