Man United 3 - St Etienne 0: Manchester United’s claim to be the only English team still in with a chance of winning four trophies this season — a bit of a stretch when it comes to the Premier League of course — is still technically intact after Zlatan Ibrahimovic underlined their hunger for silverware with a first-leg Europa League hat-trick against St Etienne.
Ibrahimovic’s deflected first-half free-kick after 15 minutes, a confident finish following a Marcus Rashford run and cross with 15 minutes to go and then a late penalty, took his tally to 23 goals in 36 games this season.
“Every time I’ve played against them with luck, with good game there has been a couple of goals,” Ibrahimovic said
“And this is nothing I’ve focused on, I’ve scored a couple of goals, hopefully I can do something next week and we can go further in the Europa League.”
His treble means United will go to France next week with a three-gaol advantage in the last-32 knockout tie and has also served to focus them nicely for Sunday’s tricky FA Cup trip to Blackburn Rovers.
When you consider Jose Mourinho’s men also have a League Cup final to look forward to against Southampton at Wembley on Sunday week — and have moved to within two points of Arsenal and Tottenham in the Premier League — then perhaps their dreams are not entirely implausible.
Deciding how to approach the Europa League has been a complicated one for Mourinho, however. It is still possible that the much-maligned trophy may well be the their best route into next season’s Champions League — the winners get an automatic place — but it could also be the competition that prevents them from finishing in the top four in the Premier League as United’s weary players struggle to cope with 65 or 66 appearances in a season.
Just this week the Special One made exactly that point, fearing that fatigue levels could cost his team dear as they prepare so many cup ties in the space of a couple of weeks.
For other managers it may not be such a big problem but for a man who has silverware running through his veins and understands the value smaller trophies may have in creating a winning mentality — his record in the League and FA Cup at Chelsea was outstanding for instance — it’s a real conundrum.
The answer he has reached, however, is pretty clear after the team he put out against French opponents here at Old Trafford. Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba (who had one of his better games in a United shirt with elder brother Florentin in the opposing side), Juan Mata and Anthony Martial — all influential players who could possibly do with a rest — were selected while goalkeeper David De Gea and winger Henrikh Mkhitaryan were the only fit United superstars omitted.
That has been the case all the way through this competition and the decision to play Ibrahimovic — at the age of 35 — so regularly has been questioned by some.
But United are a club which demands to win trophies — a club almost summed up by the treble won under Alex Ferguson in 1999 — and, as Mourinho says, they are not in a position to choose which ones to go for.
The additional prize of a Champions League place for the winners, has certainly added an extra level to this particularly competition and, currently sitting sixth in the Premier League and 12 points off the lead, Old Trafford rightly greeted their team’s 15th minute opener with plenty of enthusiasm.
As it happens, it was hardly pretty. Ibrahimovic justified his selection with a low free-kick but it was deflected several times on its way into the net, coming off at least two defenders, and goodness knows how the French team didn’t keep it out.
That perhaps is the frustration of this competition, there remains an undercurrent of ‘second best’ — but United grew into the game to produce a performance of tremendous power, particularly in the second half.
It took time to wear St Etienne down first, however. They had a strong penalty claim when Daley Blind sent Jorginho down in a tangle just inside the area at 1-0 and created a string of chances in the opening period when United’s defence looked jittery.
The second half, however, was all United’s. Ibrahimovic had a goal disallowed and Pogba crashed a header form a Mata free-kick against the crossbar before Ibra took advantage of a quick break from substitute Rashford to make it 2-0. A rather soft penalty, given for a foul on the Swede, gave him the hat-trick chance — and he didn’t turn it down. It was the 17th treble of his career and his first in a United shirt. Could there be a treble of trophies to follow?
Romero 6, Valencia 6, Smalling 6, Bailly 6, Blind 6, Mata 7 (Rashford 70; 7), Herrera 6, Fellaini 5 (Lingard 46; 7), Martial 8 (Young 85), Pogba 8, Ibrahimovic 9.
De Gea, Rojo, Schweinsteiger, Darmian.
Ruffier 8, Malcuit 6, Perrin 7, Theophile-Catherine 6, Pogba 6 (Beric 79; 6), Jorginho 6 (Roux 65; 6), Veretout 6, Pajot 7 (Selnaes 72; 6), Monnet-Paquet 6, Saivet 7, Hamouma 7.
Moulin, Lacroix,, Lemoine,, Pierre Gabriel.
Pavel Kralovec (Czech Republic)
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