With one leg pretty much already in the last 16 of the Europa League, Manchester United headed to France to the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard to take on a St Etienne side looking to overturn a 0-3 deficit.
With fixtures coming thick and fast at the moment for Jose’s men, squad rotation would need to be implemented to protect the players from injury and burnout. The team selected to take on Les Verts was:
Romero, Young, Smalling, Bailly, Blind, Fellaini, Carrick (c), Mata, Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Ibrahimovic.
Subs: De Gea, Valencia, Rojo, Schweinsteiger, Lingard, Martial, Rashford
The first half saw St Etienne start the game with a lively crowd cheering them on to try and close the gap. There was plenty of keep ball early on from both United and the boys in green although not enough penetration to really trouble either back four. Mata and Mkhitaryan (now to be known as Micky T) occupied the flanks and seemed to be swap-ping over from one side to the other on a regular basis. It was this combination which led to the opening goal for the visitors on 17 minutes, Mata making space on the left flank before delivering a sublime low cross into the box and Micky T was there to get the faintest of touches in which to nick it past the St Etienne keeper, Ruffier. 4-0 on aggregate and job done.
Worryingly only seven minutes later, Micky T was signalling to the bench and holding his hamstring. Jose took no chances and immediately called for Marcus Rashford. Injuries are the last thing that United need with a League Cup final in just four days. Fingers crossed it’s a slight strain.
It took St Etienne 37 minutes to register their first shot on target, captain Perrin glanced a header straight into the hands of Romero. Three minutes later and with the home team starting to build a head of steam, midfielder Pajot slid a lovely ball into the path of winger Monnet-Paquet, who’s first touch took it slightly away from him and United’s keeper, Romero, slid out feet first to save.
A pedestrian start to the second half saw United looking to have one eye on the cup final and St Etienne huffing and puffing at the wolf’s door only to be told that no one was home. Rashford showed bursts of his electric pace on occasion as he looked to get in behind the home defence. Pogba did manage to get in behind only to go down looking for a penalty, which would of been harsh as it looked more of a coming together than a foul. Moments later the Frenchman, Pogba, unleashed a fierce drive which went straight down the throat of Ruffier for a comfortable save.
On the hour mark, Bailly was shown a yellow card for a late tackle on Monnet-Paquet, subsequently ruling him out of the first leg of the last 16. Moments later Bailly’s last 16 tie was completely taken away from him with a second yellow being flashed in his direction for what seemed like a late tackle from behind. Jose Mourinho looked furious with the decision from the referee, who clearly felt that a strong word would of been a fair punishment.
So United were down to ten men and a little adjustment of Mata being substituted for Marcos Rojo, who filled in at centre half to plug the gap left by the recently departed Bailly. St Etienne failed to make the extra man count and were reduced to a couple of long range efforts which failed to trouble Romero.
Three blasts of the referee’s whistle saw United march on into the last 16 which is to be drawn this coming Friday. A very good performance from a strong United side kept up the momentum with the Cup final looming large at the weekend. You wouldn’t bet against that winning run continuing after this performance. United never really needed to get out of first gear and although Micky T looks a doubt, the team defended well as they have the last fifteen matches. Wembley awaits!