If Manchester United are to return to the Champions League next season, and Thursday night's assignment against Saint-Etienne suggested the Europa League may prove as taxing a route to it as the Premier League, they are likely to owe a considerable debt of gratitude to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Ibrahimovic’s hat-trick, his 21st, 22nd and 23rd goals of an impressive debut season in England, put United in firm control of this Round of 32 tie ahead of Wednesday’s second leg in France and once again underlined the 35 year-old’s importance to the club’s hopes this term. No wonder Jose Mourinho has conceded it would be a “disaster” to lose the Swede to injury.
To put his goalscoring exploits into context, no other United player has yet to reach double figures. While Anthony Martial appears to be coming to the boil again and Marcus Rashford came off the substitutes’ bench to set up United’s second goal moments after Nolan Roux, a Saint-Etienne substitute, fluffed a glorious opportunity to equalise, the dependence on Ibrahimovic is clear.
Christophe Galtier, the St Etienne coach, felt Ibrahimovic was lucky to win fouls from which he claimed his first goal with a deflected free-kick and third from the penalty spot, but when the margins are tight the big players make the difference, and so it proved here.
The game was a lot closer than the scoreline suggested and Mourinho was the first to acknowledge that United were as lucky as they were relieved to depart for the interval sporting a 1-0 lead. He had sensed his players were in for a ropey first period judging by the mood in the dressing room and warm-up before kick-off, and while there was a reaction to Mourinho’s half-time rollicking, the Portuguese warned his players that they would have to show much greater focus from the last 16 if the Europa League is to remain a viable alternative route into the Champions League.
“The first half we played so bad and managed to finish it winning 1-0 when we didn’t deserve to,” the United manager said. “It was down to a lack of concentration. I had the feeling immediately in the dressing room – too noisy, too funny, too relaxed. My assistants had the feeling in the warm-up with some of the guys not really focused, not having the right adrenaline in their bodies.
“When you don’t have that concentration it’s hard to recover it and even on the touchline I felt communicating was difficult. We needed half time.”
Saint-Etienne’s side may have consisted of Aston Villa and Newcastle United rejects, a one-time Cardiff City defender, a former Manchester City trainee and Paul Pogba’s little-known older brother, Floretin, but their determination to make their presence felt was as fierce as their raucous fans, who had sent large clouds of smoke billowing around Old Trafford by setting off at least a dozen flares just before kick-off.
Uefa may take a dim view of such behaviour but it certainly helped to create a lively atmosphere.
Romain Hamouma’s eagerness to run at United’s defence asked numerous questions, not least of Antonio Valencia and Eric Bailly. Only a terrific block from Bailly denied Hamouma, who also set up inviting chances for Henri Saviet, on loan from Newcastle, and Kevin Monnet-Paquet that were spurned.
United had taken a rather fortuitous lead. Ibrahimovic drew a soft foul and his resulting free-kick deflected off the foot of Vincent Pajot and wrong-footed goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier, who seemed to take an age to get off the ground as the ball crept over the line.
For all Mourinho’s complaints, United should have added to their lead. Juan Mata’s volley from Pogba’s lovely, floated pass was thwarted by Ruffier.
One player with whom Mourinho could not take umbrage was Martial. One surging run that began inside his own half saw Martial weave past three players before his shot was saved and the rebound, for once, caught Ibrahimovic unawares, the ball bouncing off his left foot and over.
Pogba should have scored when he headed against the crossbar from close range but the same could be said of Roux, who, with just Romero to beat from Ole Selnaes’s pass, clipped his shot over the crossbar in the 74th minute.
A minute later, Ibrahimovic had his second goal and the tie turned on its head. Rashford surged to the bye-line and crossed, Ruffier got a touch to the ball but could only steer it into the path of Ibrahimovic to prod home.
The hat-trick arrived when the Swede collapsed under a weak challenge from Kevin Theophile-Catherine and converted the spot-kick with aplomb.
“This is the decisive moment of the season,” Ibrahimovic said. “In a short time everything can change so it is important to keep working hard, get the wins we need and keep the confidence.”
More of the same please
We spend far too much time fretting about what the 'neutrals' think, because frankly who cares, but they would have enjoyed that first half at Old Trafford. St Etienne have looked pacy in wide areas, and United's centre back pairing of Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly looks like one that hasn't played too many games together.
The big positive for Mourinho is Paul Pogba's performance, who is showing he can be trusted without the reassuring presence of Michael Carrick behind him.
Half-time change for Utd: Jesse Lingard on for Fellaini.
Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly almost gift the French side a perfect start. Romero rushed out his goal to deny Paquet after the two centre backs played 'after you Claude' with a simple long ball. Bailly eventually played the ball but under hit the backpass. Mourinho gives them a thousand-yard stare.
Teams in the tunnel
Arsenal and Tottenham, two representatives of the Best League in the World, have lost in Europe already this week. Can Man Utd do any better? You would hope so at home to St Etienne.
The Pogba brothers stride out side by side as the teams make their way onto the pitch. Old Trafford looks close to capacity.
Man Utd: Romero, Valencia, Smalling, Bailly, Blind, Mata, Ander Herrera, Fellaini, Martial, Pogba, Ibrahimovic. Subs: de Gea, Rojo, Lingard, Young, Rashford, Schweinsteiger, Darmian.
St Etienne: Ruffier, Malcuit, Perrin, Theophile-Catherine, Pogba, Jorginho, Veretout, Pajot, Monnet-Paquet, Saivet, Hamouma.
Subs: Moulin, Lacroix, Roux, Selnaes, Lemoine, Beric, Pierre Gabriel.
Referee: Pavel Kralovec (Czech Republic)