It’s Champions League day usually, but the Red Devils confirmed their ticket to the last 16 of the Europa League, as they played their return leg against Saint Etienne one day earlier due to their participation in the EFL Cup final on Sunday 26. The Red Devils got away with an important win, courtesy of Mkhitaryan who scored the only goal of the match to make the aggregate 4-0 in their favour, before leaving his team-mates soon after following what seemed like a hamstring pull, and then they even had to hold on for about 30 minutes in the second half with 10-men following Bailly’s dismissal for a second yellow.
The French side, backed by a sumptuous crowd, looked to put some doubts in United’s mind as they controlled the opening 10 minutes or so of the first half, but United gradually got their passing game in place, and scored with the first shot on target on the 16th minute. Mata curled in a beautiful cross, and Mkhitaryan applied a deft finish with the tip of his boot to put the ball well beyond the reach of the keeper into the far side corner. However, he did not last long, as 10 minutes later, he had to make way for Rashford, and clearly it could be seen that he had damaged a hamstring. United did not create much from there on, keeping the ball but not really threatening the opposition, and instead Romero had to produce a save at the other end to deny the French side any chance of a comeback before half-time.
The second half saw almost a carbon-copy of the first one, until Bailly went into two really stupid challenges which earned him two bookings, and a red card as conclusion. Mourinho had to review his tactics and sent on Rojo to replace Mata, with the Red Devils switching to a 4-4-1 formation, as they looked to keep a cleansheet. With the curious case of Rooney still lingering in the air, where some reports are suggesting he’s ready to join the Chinese League before the end of February while others state he will end the season then move on, and inside news sometimes stating he is sick/injured, it was a surprise to see Schweinsteiger getting some minutes as well, as he came on for Carrick moments before Bailly was sent off, but it was a positive appearance for the German, as he was very good on the ball, making more passes forward, and certainly looking more useful than Carrick despite having lesser minutes to play. With 10-men on the pitch, it was obvious that United were going to defend deep once Rojo was sent on, and they did rather well, although it has to be noted that Saint Etienne do not have quality players upfront who could cause some major upset. Overall United did what was expected from them, going by the usual Mourinho style, where he came to defend the lead from the first leg, got a killer goal in the first half itself, and held on to it to make sure the team progress on to the next round. However, a big salute must be given to the fans of Saint Etienne, as they were really in voice from start to finish, and kept encouraging their team despite knowing they were already out when they conceded that away goal, but the spirit never died, and I believe many fans of other clubs, including those who go to Old Trafford, can learn a few things from them on how to support your team, even when in bad situations.