Manchester United might feel much of the hard work has been done in this run of cup games. José Mourinho’s side arrives in France following an unconvincing 2-1 FA Cup victory over Blackburn Rovers at the weekend, but Wednesday’s second leg at Saint-Etienne offers the chance to rest key players heading into Sunday’s EFL Cup final.
United won Sunday’s FA Cup game while playing poorly – it is a scenario irregularly seen since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Mourinho’s team struggled to fashion chances, with attacks often breaking down before they really had a chance to develop. It took a truly spectacular pass from Henryk Mkhitaryan to Marcus Rashford to level the tie after United fell behind early in the game. Ultimately, the introduction of Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic broke the deadlock and enabled United to win the game.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]United won Sunday’s FA Cup game while playing poorly – it is a scenario irregularly seen since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.[/blockquote]
While Ibrahimovic garners much of the attention – after all, the Swede has now scored 23 goals this season – credit is also due to Mkhitaryan. The Armenian arrived at the club after a season in which he was directly involved in 50 goals. High expectations dipped after the midfielder suffered a slow start, due in part to limited opportunities, which raised questions over his ability to settle at the club. Yet, since his reintroduction to the squad, Mkhitaryan has proven more than capable of adapting and is now playing at a very high level, including at Blackburn last Sunday.
The Reds travel to central France to face AS Saint-Etienne for the second time in six days, though the task is far simpler than just under a week ago. The visitors hold a 3-0 lead, meaning the game perhaps best represents an opportunity for some players to make a case to be included in the EFL Cup Final squad next weekend. Mourinho, however, is keen to ensure his players don’t lose focus on the task ahead.
“We have not already done the job,” said the Portuguese manager. “Three-nil is a very good result and if we play as we usually play I think it is mission impossible for Saint-Etienne, even though I do not forget that we played badly for 45 minutes last week. I will tell my players to forget that we play a final on Sunday and be focussed.
“Saint-Etienne are fourth or fifth in Ligue 1 and the only thing I can say is that they are a good team – very well organised with a coach that showed his potential not just tactically but also the mental point of view. I have a difficult opponent that we got a very good result in the first match. The result could be different. Instead of 3-0 it could be 2-1, and we have a job to finish tomorrow.”
Following last Thursday’s defeat, Saint-Etienne travelled to Montepellier in Ligue 1, with 1-0 lead evaporating into a disappointing 2-1 defeat. Opting for few changes from the side that ran out in Old Trafford, Les Verts struggled to find a footing in the game, allowing Montpellier a large proportion of the play. After taking an early lead, Saint-Etienne let an impeccable defensive record slip, with two Montpellier goals coming either side of a Jorginho red card.
Christophe Galtier’s side is now in fifth in Ligue 1, cut away from the top three, with an apparent inability to find the back of the net effectively ending the quest for Champions League football. With little but pride on the line, the Sainté must galvanise themselves not only for Wednesday’s game, but for an upcoming fight to return to Europe’s second competition.
Despite recovering from a muscle injury, Wayne Rooney has failed to pass the Mourinho test and did not travel to Saint-Etienne. Rumour of an unlikely move to China has resurfaced this week, with the Chinese Super League transfer window closing at the end of the month. Rooney’s influence and opportunities have lessened as the season has developed, and despite United’s few striking options, the Scouser is now at the bottom of that short pile.
ASSE subs from: Moulin, Lacroix, Tannane, Clement, Gabriel, M’Bengue, Soderlund, Roux
United subs from: Romero, Young, Fosu-Mensah, Rojo, Schweinsteiger, Carrick, Ibrahimovic
Luke Shaw also failed to make the cut and remains in Manchester this week. The young left-back hasn’t been involved at all of late, and is no doubt wondering where his next opportunity will come from.
“He stayed behind in Manchester because I’m playing with Daley Blind, with Marcos Rojo, with Matteo Darmian, and all of them are playing the way I like a full-back to play,” Mourinho said.
“Luke has to wait for his chance and work better and better, knowing I give nothing for free. When I give something to the players, it’s expensive for them – it’s not cheap. They have to work hard every day, they have to play well, so he has to wait. And, at this moment, he’s behind the others.”
Phil Jones continues his recovery from a foot injury, while Matteo Darmian and Ander Herrera, who featured on Sunday afternoon, also remain at home. Herrera misses the game through suspension.
With the tie all but settled, Mourinho can afford to rest some of his more weathered stars ahead of the upcoming Wembley date against Southampton. It is unlikely Michael Carrick will be subjected to more game time than required given he completed 90 minutes last Thursday, with Marouane Fellaini and the younger Pogba a likely pair in central midfield. Juan Mata was a late substitute at Blackburn, signifying his probably inclusion in France.
After sitting out United’s two cup fixtures last week, David de Gea may be recalled if any rust has accumulated, although Ibrahimovic will surely not be risked ahead of the Cup Final.
Mourinho could see the fixture as an opportunity to hand minutes to those who have been overlooked for most of the campaign. Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Bastian Schweinsteiger should both make the bench as focus turns to Sunday.
Progression to the last 16 is all but secured, now the emphasis is on getting past the tie with no drama or injuries, before all eyes turn to Wembley and the first cup final of the season.
Referee: Deniz Aytekin
Assistant referees: Guido Kleve, Markus Häcker
Fourth official: Eduard Beitinger
Additional assistants: Daniel Siebert, Benjamin Brand
Saint-Etienne 1-2 United