Crucial period begins with Europa League return
It’s the beginning of yet another pivotal period at Manchester United. As the club continues to compete on all fronts, it was inevitable that the tests would increase for José Mourinho and his players. Four games across three competitions, including a cup final, all crammed into an intimidating 10 day package will certainly do that. Mourinho has challenged players to prove they are good enough to be at the club, and he will likely have drawn conclusions on who fits that criteria when the final whistle blows at Wembley in just over a week. First, however, the Europa League returns with the visit of French side Saint-Etienne.
The continent’s second-tier competition has been a decidedly mixed bag for United this season. Some performances suggested that Mourinho’s players would rather it disappear from their schedule altogether, but if they are unable to wrench themselves from sixth place in the Premier League, it could represent an alternative route into next season’s Champions League.
"The continent’s second-tier competition has been a mixed bag for United this season. Some performances suggested that the players would rather it disappear from their schedule."
United’s second consecutive participation in the tournament is an unfortunate reminder of where the club has found itself over the past few years. It is clearly not where a manager of Mourinho’s standing would like to be, but it is an opportunity for the Reds to press on and win silverware – demonstrating that the team is ready to re-take a seat at Europe’s top table.
If the club is to go all the way, however, squad depth will be vital. It is telling that discussion surrounding the club this season has been as much about who isn’t playing opposed to who is. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw and now Marcus Rashford have all been the subject of media attention over their playing time, or lack thereof. This isn’t necessarily as negative as many have tried to portray.
Instead of looking to poke holes in Mourinho’s man-management style, perhaps observers should look at the ever-increasing competition for starting places that he has created at the club. Judging by Mkhitaryan’s pivotal return to the side, and Martial’s scintillating performance at the weekend, Mourinho is succeeding in keeping his players hungry. Multiple trophies are rarely won with a thin squad, nor if the components are not scrapping for every available minute of playing time. Mourinho’s glittering record suggests he is a coach who understands this more than most.
The Portuguese has succeeded in whipping up competition within the squad, now those selected must start delivering for their manager consistently. Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Watford seems a fairly modest score-line, but United’s performance was one that the team has regularly promised, yet too often failed to deliver. The manager hailed his side’s first-half onslaught as the best he has witnessed for some time – and few would disagree. The Reds’ pace, energy and invention culminated in a fluidly worked and smartly taken goal by Juan Mata. His 32nd minute finish ensured that United would not once again head into the second-half of a home fixture still looking to break the deadlock.
The routine victory over the Hornets was a timely return to form, as United prepares to welcome Saint-Etienne to Old Trafford. The meeting will be only the second time the clubs have been paired in European competition, following a two-legged Cup Winners’ Cup tie in 1977-78. Dave Sexton’s United progressed on aggregate, but the tie was remembered for the Reds home leg being played at Home Park in Plymouth. Crowd trouble in the opening leg in France led to UEFA ordering United to play the match at least 200km away from Manchester. Goals from Stuart Pearson and Steve Coppell granted United passage into the next round, with the Reds winning 3-1 on aggregate after a 1-1 draw in France.
Mourinho will be hope for altogether more straightforward affair.
Saint-Etienne is a club steeped in history. Founded shortly after the First World War, Les Verts have won 10 league titles in France and were famously captained by Michel Platini in the early 1980s. Financial trouble coincided with Platini’s departure and the club went into a devastating free-fall in the years that followed. The club only returned to the top tier of French football in 2004/05, and went without a trophy for 30 years before capturing the French League Cup in 2013.
Following a sixth place finish in last year’s campaign, Saint-Etienne reached the Europa League Group Stage via the play-off rounds, but went on to win Group C without losing a single game. Les Verts are not a prolific goal-scoring side, but boast the second best defensive record in Ligue 1, conceding only 19 times in 25 matches. Currently sitting fifth, there are parallels with United in that both sides have drawn nine league games, hindering progress into the Champions League places.
The French side boasts Florentin Pogba in the squad, older brother of United’s Paul, creating an interesting sub-plot for the fixture. Similar in size and stature to his younger brother, Florentin plays at centre-back and has drifted in and out of the Saint-Etienne side, but has managed to secure a starting berth in his side’s last six league games, albeit at left-back.
The French side, knowing that they do not concede many goals, will look to United’s scoring profligacy at home this season as a source of encouragement, and will likely be satisfied in taking a draw back to the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in a week’s time. Manager Christophe Galtier could opt to follow the example of other sides that have shut out United at Old Trafford, by sitting deep and attempting to nullify Anthony Martial’s pace, and making it difficult for Mkhitaryan and Mata to find space. United’s clinical finishing against Watford must be repeated in order to avoid a tricky second leg.
Early rumours suggested that Luke Shaw could make a long-awaited return to the side, after being left out repeatedly in recent weeks, although Mourinho has since confirmed that the 21-year-old will once again not feature from the start. Shaw seems to be undergoing the same tough treatment as some of his teammates have endured, with reports increasing that he is fighting for his Old Trafford future.
Elsewhere, Mourinho faces a balancing act between not disturbing the harmony that is increasingly prevalent among his attacking options, and rotating the squad with a packed schedule in mind. The manager confirmed that Phil Jones will not feature against Les Verts, nor will Michael Carrick or captain Wayne Rooney.
United subs from: Romero, Shaw, Darmian, Young, Rojo, Fellaini, Schweinsteiger, Lingard, Rashford
Saint-Etienne subs from: Moulin, Lacroix, Pierre-Gabriel, Corgnet, Lemoine, Selnaes, Roux
Carrick’s absence could indicate that Mourinho is prepared to continue with Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera as a pair at the base of midfield. Pogba has demonstrated in recent games that he can function in such a role, and the Frenchman will be key in Thursday’s game. The 23-year-old has shown a tendency to appear over-excited in matches that are particularly significant to him, and he must not let the fact that he is playing against his older brother affect his performance. Pogba’s play was markedly more consistent against Watford – an area in which he must continually look to improve.
"Martial responded to his manager’s baiting in perfect fashion at the weekend, bagging a goal and an assist in a thoroughly impressive showing. "
In attack, Martial responded to his manager’s baiting in perfect fashion at the weekend, bagging a goal and an assist in a thoroughly impressive showing. Mourinho embraced the young forward as he departed the pitch on Saturday, surely dispelling any talk of a breakdown in the pair’s relationship. Martial may yet find himself out of the side again before the season is out, but alongside Mkhitaryan he is undoubtedly the Reds’ outstanding attacking talent when on-form.
Mourinho has reiterated his stance that the Europa League is not a competition United wants to be playing in, but that it will show it sufficient respect. This could be considered a warning to his players, as a handful of displays in the group stages suggested a lack of respect. Saint-Etienne arrives at Old Trafford hoping to expose any lingering frailties in the hosts’ United form.
Pavel Krávolec (Referee)
Roman Slysko, Ivo Nádvorník (Assistants)
Tomás Mokrusch (Fourth Official)
United 2-0 Saint-Ettiene