Thursday 19 October 2017

United in command thanks to Zlat-trick

Ibrahimovic treble shows Mourinho's men mean business in Europa League

Paul Pogba and his brother Florentin leave the pitch at half-time during the Europa League match at Old Trafford last night. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters
Paul Pogba and his brother Florentin leave the pitch at half-time during the Europa League match at Old Trafford last night. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters

Ian Herbert

It was not exactly a Zlatan Ibrahimovic hat-trick befitting the colour and animation which the bouncing, boisterous green French enclave had brought to Old Trafford.

The free-kick and a penalty which he won and converted to start and complete it were both awarded under the most marginal connection from defenders, though no one will remember that if Manchester United can travel all the way to the Stockholm final.

The goals take the Swede's tally to five in six games, with his record against Saint-Etienne something to make coach Christophe Galtier curse the very sight of him - 17 goals in 14 - and, with the raucous atmosphere in the Massif Central next week now seeming little to fear, Jose Mourinho could reflect last night on the extraordinary value which this 35-year-old has brought.

Mourinho is interested; very interested. Behind the choreographed indifference he is displaying about the Europa League and fixtures it piles up, he sees the chance to win the one pot that Alex Ferguson did not. Vanity makes that idea appealing.

So while this might have been some steps removed from the kind of February Champions League electricity to which Manchester United were accustomed in the last of the Ferguson years, there was a statement in the team selection and an intent their play.

Paul Pogba was the one who most looked like he had something to prove, if only to his brother, Florentin, in the opposition's left-back slot.

Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic with the match ball. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic with the match ball. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

He marshalled and pointed from the back of midfield, sent out a succession of Hollywood passes and looked like the man you'd pay a fortune for, as United set off like a train.

Florentin left Ibrahimovic on his backside as the first half wore on which was compensation of sorts.

Bragging

By then, he badly needed a few fraternal bragging rights.

Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores their third goal from the penalty spot to complete his hat trick. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters
Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores their third goal from the penalty spot to complete his hat trick. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters

For a time it looked like the French side would be steamrollered. United led through a goal which was surprisingly prosaic considering the early waves they made: Ibrahimovic winning a cheap free-kick by falling under minimal contact from Jordan Veretout and then somehow passing the free-kick, from just outside the area, in through the legs of Kevin Monnet-Paquet, with the slightest deflection defying the goalkeeper.

Anthony Martial was also alive to the possibilities of a competition Steven Gerrard once called the Champions' League's "ugly kid brother."

A 60-yard run and shot which Stephane Ruffier stuck out a left boot to block was the best of his creations.

But the French zest which had made Manchester city centre a sea of green all day was not limited to their memorable supporters. Saint-Etienne might be a shadow of what the great Gerard Janvion, Herve Revelli and Dominique Rocheteau brought when these teams last met 40 years ago but they remain a side in which a surfeit of intelligence compensates for the lack of financial resource.

They spotted a weakness down the United right, where Antonio Valencia and Eric Bailly could not stem their rapid, counter-attacking raids, and having fallen behind recovered to create a string of chances.

St Etienne's Kevin Monnet-Paquet in action with Manchester United's Antonio Valencia. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters
St Etienne's Kevin Monnet-Paquet in action with Manchester United's Antonio Valencia. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters

Romain Hamouma and Henri Saivet posed the creative threat and provided the first half's outstanding move on the half hour, when Hamouma cut in from the left and found his team-mate, who rolled the ball under his studs and clipped it narrowly wide.

Mourinho wanted to know from the fourth official if half-time was close and duly marched off before the referee signalled it; a man with much to say.

It was a monstering by the evidence of how United rediscovered the ascendency after the break and made it such one-way traffic.

Marouane Fellaini was immediately hooked for Jesse Lingard, though Martial was the exocet, blasting through the French midfield.

He'd skipped away from two men to charge into the box and find his shot beat clear before winning a free-kick which Pogba smacked against Ruffier's crossbar.

The ammunition kept arriving, with Marcus Rashford joining in for the last 20 minutes and he needed five minutes to turn the key, driving into the left hand side of French box and finding the shot which Ruffier could only palm to Ibrahimovic, who pounced.

The margins can be pitifully fine. The visiting centre-forward, substitute Nolan Roux, came close to equalising minutes before the second goal, racing ahead of Daley Blind to run in on Sergio Romero and yet clip the ball over.

But as Roux blundered, Ibrahimovic did anything but. He fell to the floor under minimal contact from Kevin Theophile-Catherine on 88 minutes and United's job was done. (© Independent News Service)

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