Dark, a bit cold, not very wet.
Manchester United 3-0 St Étienne.
A solid first leg victory that sent fans home happy, just what the doctor ordered. It is clear that Mourinho is taking the Europa League seriously and rightly so! United find themselves in sixth domestically and, although unbeaten since October, making the top four is going to be a slog. The Europa League is another avenue to get back to the Champions League and famous nights against the likes of Dinamo Zagreb and CSKA Moscow. More importantly, United have never won the competition and Mourinho loves making history at clubs in order to stroke his wonderful ego.
Association Sportive de Saint-Étienne Loire surprised me last night. Despite having a ridiculous name, ASSE came to play. Their high pressing and energy stopped United from getting into a rhythm in the first half and forced misplaced passes. If Hamouma didn’t have a rush of blood to the head every time he was in our box, the game could have ended very differently. The Étienne fans were expectedly brilliant. Around 3,500 packed into the away end who did not stop bouncing, singing and having their own pyro party for the whole 90 minutes. I did wonder when I saw the stadium filled with smoke and illuminated in green how it was possible when I was all but strip searched at the turnstile.
After a distinctly average first half, going in at 1-0 was a bit lucky! Zlatan had a poor game and scored 3 goals, work that one out! However, he did score possibly the greatest free kick I have witnessed in the last 10 years. If you haven’t seen the highlights yet, you’re in for a treat. His second goal was equally spectacular, this time from open play.
The second half was much different. Lingard replaced Fellaini and played number 10, dropping Pogba behind to play alongside Herrera and it worked much better. I image the decision was made in the first minute when Mourinho realised they had one player who was above 6ft tall so Fellaini really wasn’t necessary and struggled against the quick pressing game of Les Verts (that’s French for The Greens, not an actual player who was particularly good at closing down).
United were fortunate with the third goal. A rather soft (from my angle) penalty allowed Zlatan to score his first hat-trick for The Reds. However, 3-0 was a very good result against a not bad Etienne team. Mourinho’s substitutions were decisive and made the difference. Rashford looked good when he came and did brilliantly to set up the second with a trademark dribble to the by-line. I can only imagine what was going through Florentin Pogba’s head when he had endured 75 minutes of Valencia annihilating him and Mata running rings around him to then see Rashford come on to have a bash. I think it was around ten minutes later when he decided he’d had enough and went down with ‘cramp’. Martial was also a bright spark who attacked the full back on every occasion while Bailey was class at the back, making some key blocks and tackles.
Just the worst. I’ve never seen a professional referee be so influenced by managers and the crowd. At one point, he gave a free kick to United in the middle of the park, happily stood for 5-10 seconds about 20 yards away from the incident, confident he made the right decision. United fans thought they’d try their luck and hurl a ripple of abuse for a yellow card. After much consideration, Pavel Kralovec duly obliged in showing a yellow card. I can only imagine his thought process was that ‘surely all these people in the crowd couldn’t be wrong!’
Chino’s, Chino’s, Chino’s! – If you know, you know.
A good result to take over to France next week. Not the best display but in the same tone not the worst. The boss adjusted to what he saw and made good decisions meaning I came away very satisfied with what I saw. With a busy schedule ahead, the three-goal margin was definitely needed in order to allow squad rotation ready for the EFL Cup Final next Sunday. Just what the doctor ordered.