In general, English sides exhibit an unfavorable attitude towards the Europa League, as Tottenham Hotspurs on many occasions and Liverpool in a few seasons under Rodgers showed. The teams have to play on Thursday night and then be ready for league football by Sunday afternoon or so. Last season, Liverpool seemed to prioritize Europa League over other commitments and while they reached the final of Europa League, they did suffer a bit in the Premier League standings.
This season, at least in this Round of 32, Manchester United do not face that typical predicament. After playing St. Etienne on Thursday night at home, they just have to travel to Blackburn Rovers on Sunday for their FA Cup showdown and after next week’s Europa match in France, they have to face Southampton at Wembley for the League Cup Final. Fair to say that Jose Mourinho can afford to rotate his squad a bit without really suffering too much in terms of where the club will end up at the end of the season. United’s opponents – St. Etienne, do not have the same luxury. They have to play Montpellier on Sunday in their 26th Ligue 1 game of the season. Perhaps the French clubs also don’t really like the Europa League.
Manchester United come into the match with some wind in their sails. They are alive and fairly healthy in all four competitions. After last year’s FA Cup, this year too they are one step away from silverware. In the league, they are 16 games unbeaten and are just two points away from the 4th position in the league. They have had slightly mixed fortunes in the Europa League, losing to Fenerbahce and Feyenoord away but winning the other four games in the Group Stage. In fact, there was a time earlier in the season, when wins in Europa League was the only positive aspect of their gameplay, while they struggled at the home front. Manchester United are definitely going to approach the first leg of this tie with positivity.
Their opponents, St. Etienne are also on a decent run in Ligue 1, where they have lost only one match in last six and are sitting fifth, one point behind Lyon. Like United, they are sitting on the cusp on European qualification for the next season, but unlike them they have been knocked out of the domestic cup in France. In Europa League, they have made a peculiar habit of winning or at least performing exceedingly well in away games, but stuttering in home games. Given the two-legged nature of these ties and the presence of the away-goal rule, St. Etienne could dream of an upset of knocking out their much richer rivals from the tournament.
With a relatively easy FA Cup fixture coming up, Mourinho might want to play a fairly strong team in the first leg, as his side can wrap up the tie in this leg and then play a rotated side in France next week. Only defenders Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones could be doubtful for the first leg, but otherwise Mourinho can choose from all the other players. However, Herrera and Bailly are both one booking away from missing a game in the competition. Such an eventuality could restrict Jose’s hand in the second leg or in the next round.
St. Etienne have an injury problem at the top. Three of their attackers – Oussama Tannane, Robert Beric, and Alexander Søderlund – are out injured. Galtier’s team will be hoping that Hamouma, Nolan Roux, and Monnet-Paquet are adequate to attack United. In defense, as mentioned above, Cheikh M’Bengue could sit out, allowing the Pogba brothers to play against each other.
- Manchester United currently are on the longest run of remaining undefeated in the League with 16 games, among the top European leagues.
- A quirk of fate in the form of fitness doubt for Cheikh M’Bengue could get Paul Pogba to play against his brother Florentin Pogba, who is likely to fill in for the injured left back.
- Etienne are one of the stingiest teams in Ligue 1, as only Paris Saint Germain have conceded fewer goals than them (18 vs 19).
- The only previous encounter between these two sides was in UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup (same competition) almost 40 years back in 1977-78. United won the home leg 2-0 before drawing 1-1 in France.
Manchester United’s top scorer from last season is being asked to prove his mettle this season by Jose Mourinho. With performances like the one against Watford on Sunday, one can say that he is indeed starting to prove himself very well. He has scored seven and assisted six goals in his 23 appearances for United across all competitions this season – that’s a goal contribution rate of 0.82 goals scored or assisted per 90 minutes, which is actually better than 36 goals contributed (20 scored and 16 assisted) in 5304 minutes across 63 appearances last season – a goal contribution rate of 0.61 goals per 90 minutes. He is in a better attacking form, he has a point to prove, and he is among the handful United players that have played in Ligue 1. So he knows the opponent fairly well too. I think he will be key in beating St. Etienne’s stoic defense with his pace on the wings, especially at home.
St. Etienne possess a very stingy defense and indeed they may make life very hard for United’s forwards. But if St. Etienne want to progress to the next round, they will need to score goals and the more they can score in the away leg, the better. Romain Hamouma has been shouldering the bulk of the scoring and creating responsibilities for the French side and Thursday will not be very different. Christophe Galtier will be hoping his right winger can muster the form that has allowed him to score six and assist four in just 1119 minutes in the Ligue 1, a goal contribution rate of 0.81 per 90 minutes, very similar to Martial. He has also scored 2 and assisted 2 goals in the last four Ligue 1 matches this season.
St. Etienne might be stingy defenders, but they are not extravagant scorers either. Also, in Zlatan, Martial, and Pogba, United possess a triad who knows the opponents fairly well. In absolute terms as well, United possess the firepower to overcome St. Etienne’s stoic defenders. I believe it will be hard fought but United will emerge victorious, although it is possible that the French side will nick in an away goal and try to take advantage in the next leg.