Manchester United go into Friday’s last-16 draw of the Europa League after a 1-0 victory in St Etienne’s raucous Stade Geoffroy-Guichard sent Jose Mourinho’s side through 4-0 on aggregate.
Once the smoke from flares and the smell of sulphur had dissipated at the start of the game, in an atmosphere as hot as Manchester United’s white away kits, Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s 16th minute goal ended the dreams of even the most optimistic among the massed banks of green.
With their multitude of international stars, United were technically superior and physically stronger than Christophe Galtier’s less-remunerated and largely French squad from the team that sits fifth in Ligue 1. Eric Bailly brushed off their attackers like a man taking on schoolboys, while a 56th minute free-kick from Romain Hamouma was so farcical it illustrated the lack of confidence shown by the hosts, who held their opponents in more awe than in the first leg. Bailly was dismissed in the 63rd minute for a second yellow card, yet United were seldom troubled even when down to 10 men.
Saint-Etienne, who won only one of their three home group games but still won the group to give them a second leg at home against United, are out of the Europa League, but their die-hard fans put on a fine show over two legs. Their 3,000-strong following at Old Trafford last week was the most impressive contingent to visit the stadium in the eyes of many United fans, though they remained baffled why so many of them travelled so far and then kept their backs to the pitch while they orchestrated songs.
Stade Geoffroy-Guichard is one of France’s finest football grounds and it is a “ground” in the truest sense, with four steep and separate stands brought up to the most modern standards thanks to some pre-Euro 2016 development. All 41,000 tickets sold out, including 1,700 travellers from Manchester, but these home fans were no big game glory hunters: they’re the fifth-best supported team in France.
If their hopes of reaching the round of 16 were thoroughly extinguished by United’s opening goal, which put the tie at 4-0, their passion for their team was not: they became even louder with their singing, dancing and raising flags and flares. They were organized, with the two giant end stands singing to each other.
The overall atmosphere was so superior to any English football ground. English football has gained much in the last two decades, but it has come at a cost to the once famous English atmosphere.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan winced as he limped off injured, clutching what appeared to be his hamstring after 25 minutes. He was replaced by Marcus Rashford. United are fortunate to have players of such quality in reserve — Jose Mourinho brought on Marcos Rojo when Bailly was dismissed — but such has been Mkhitaryan’s impact in recent months that he’ll be sorely missed if unable to play in Sunday’s EFL cup final against Southampton at Wembley.
Though his initial impact was minimal after joining from Borussia Dortmund last June, he’s been a regular since December, when he started to fit Mourinho’s criteria of what a United player should be. In the 16 games in which he’s appeared since, the balletic Armenian has scored six times and set up five more. Not for nothing do fans sing “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine” — he’s now ranked as the top attacking midfielder in the Europa League by UEFA.
Mkhitaryan’s goals can be stunners, and though his flick from Juan Mata’s defence-splitting cross was perfectly taken, it wasn’t in the same league as his scorpion kick goal against Sunderland. Is anything? Even in the 20-odd minutes he was on the pitch, he managed a goal, a shot and eight passes and won every tackle he attempted.
Apart from his injury, the only shame was that all the travelling United fans didn’t see the goal. The 1,700 capacity was supposed to be full yet the upper tier of the section was half-empty, with United fans stuck outside the ground. Security has been ramped up for all games in France after a state of emergency was declared following the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, especially for major sporting events.
Though United fans used to mock the Europa League as a competition which Liverpool played on a Thursday night, they’ve now seen their team play in the competition three times in the past five years. In 2012 and 2016, United reached the last-16 before being eliminated by Athletic Bilbao and Liverpool. They’re in the same stage again now, but there’s a real confidence that this team can go all the way and win the competition in Sweden in May. Sevilla, winners in each of the last three seasons, are playing in the Champions League and are no obstacle.
United boast a 100 percent record from their four home games, having put four past Fenerbahce and Feyenoord and three past Saint-Etienne, all of whom are considered strong sides in European football’s secondary competition. Away from home, United have now recorded successive victories in Ukraine and France after going 16 months without a win in Europe, which incurred their worst-ever away run.
Though the prize money pales compared to the Champions League, Mourinho wants silverware and to win this competition: he wants to win all three cups that United remain in during the final third of the season. And while he makes changes and picks Sergio Romero over David de Gea in Europe, he’ll still play Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba.
Though Pogba still needs to find his range in front of goal, he’s found a rhythm that makes him one of United’s most important players. He stood out against his brother’s side and not just when the pair looked for their family at the end of the game.
Meanwhile, Ibrahimovic, who’d struck 17 goals in his last 14 outings against the Ligue 1 side, was booed when he touched the ball. Though he didn’t find the net, his experience, form and confidence will be crucial as the competition gets tougher.
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