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Ukrainian underdogs visit Utd in Europa League

Manchester United’s Chris Smalling heads the ball during their UEFA Europa League Group A match against Feyenoord Rotterdam, at the Feyenoord Stadium in Rotterdam, on September 15, 2016 © AFP/File / Emmanuel Dunand

MANCHESTER, United Kingdom, Sep 28Manchester United host unheralded Ukrainians Zorya Luhansk at Old Trafford on Thursday with Jose Mourinho’s side aiming to get their Europa League campaign off the ground after a bumpy start.

Mourinho’s reluctant contenders in Europe’s second-tier club competition kicked off their campaign with a 1-0 defeat at Feyenoord in Rotterdam a fortnight ago.

That Dutch disaster, which left United bottom of Group A, was the second of three consecutive reverses in between Premier League losses to Manchester City and then Watford.

But United welcome the side who sit second in the Ukrainian Premier League with a renewed spring in their step after their weekend rout of English champions Leicester City.

Captain Wayne Rooney missed the trip to Feyenoord and Mourinho also left him on the bench for Saturday’s emphatic 4-1 victory.

If he returns and scores Rooney will join Ruud van Nistelrooy as United’s all-time top scorer in Europe with 37 goals.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic misses the tie after being granted time off by Mourinho who could welcome back Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

The 27-year-old Armenian playmaker, a £26 million ($34.5 million, 30.7 million euros) signing from Borussia Dortmund, has missed United’s last four games with a thigh problem.

Zorya travel to Manchester after an opening 1-1 draw with Fenerbahce. Midfielder Zeljko Ljubenovic spelt out the task facing him and his teammates.

“I watched their last match against Laicester. Hopefully we will manage to play better than Laicester did,” the Belgrade-born 35-year-old told his club’s website.

He added: “We need to play very carefully in defence. I hope we’ll be able to get a positive result.

Southampton’s Jay Rodriguez (R) celebrates with teammate Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg after scoring a goal during the UEFA Europa League Group K match against Sparta Prague, at St Mary’s Stadium in Southampton, on September 15, 2016 © AFP/File / Glyn Kirk

“But I’m happy anyway that we will have a chance to test ourselves against such an opponent. And if we make mistakes we’ll have a chance to do our homework for the return leg.”

Group A rivals Fenerbahce and Feyenoord meet in Istanbul with Dirk Kuyt, now the captain of the Dutch side, going back to face the club he represented for three years until 2015.

Unlike United, Premier League rivals Southampton enjoyed the perfect start to their campaign with a 3-0 home defeat of Sparta Prague.

That was Claude Puel’s first win as Saints’ manager and the Frenchman will be looking for more of the same from his Group K leaders against Hapoel Beer-Sheva in Israel.

Sparta are in turmoil after firing their coach Zenek Scasny on Monday ahead of Inter Milan’s visit.

Zenit St. Petersburg’s Igor Smolnikov (R) attempts to move past Maccabi’s Eden Ben Basat during their UEFA Europa League Group D match, at Netanya Stadium in Netanya, Israel, on September 15, 2016 © AFP/File / Jack Guez

It’s a must-win game for both sides after Inter were stunned 2-0 at home by Hapoel in their opener.

Hapoel’s fellow Israeli side Maccabi Tel-Aviv are in Dublin to take on Dundalk, who are trying to become the first team from the Republic of Ireland to win a group stage game.

Stephen Kenny’s side came away with a hard-earned point in their Group D opener, a come-from-behind 1-1 draw at AZ Alkmaar, substitute Ciaran Kilduff netting the equaliser with a minute to go.

Maccabi are still shaking their heads wondering how they let go a three-goal lead to lose 4-3 at home to Zenit St Petersburg as the Russian former UEFA Cup winners produced the standout performance on the opening night.

Elsewhere on Thursday, Young Boys create a slice of Swiss history when they embark on a 9,100-kilometre Group B return trip to Kazakhstan to face Astana — the furthest away game any club from Switzerland has ever played.

Sassuolo, who enjoyed a dream 3-0 win over 2012 finalists Athletic Bilbao to kick off their first ever Europa League campaign, are at Genk, while French Ligue 1 leaders Nice are at Russian outfit Krasnodar.