Manchester United cantered into Friday’s Europa League last-16 draw via a professional display that squeezed St-Étienne out of this second leg.
Christophe Galtier’s side hardly troubled José Mourinho’s team, and he and his players can now focus on Sunday’s EFL Cup final against Southampton at Wembley.
Given a 3-0 advantage from last week’s first leg United’s initial task was not to concede an early goal and allow the French belief the tie could be wrested their way, as Mourinho said: “Anything can happen in football. We have a situation that we shouldn’t waste so it’s important to start well.”
As at Old Trafford the atmosphere at kick-off was raucous, Le Verts’ fans illustrating why their ground is nicknamed Cauldron by lighting flares and creating a wall of noise.
Kevin Malcuit, the home right-back, made a first drive-and-cross, before the contest settled into some back and forth between the sides.
United’s opening attack featured a Paul Pogba run but his ball from the left found only Stephane Ruffier, St-Etienne’s goalkeeper.
Much ado about not too much followed. This will have pleased Mourinho. As the quarter hour passed it was 0-0, which was job done well so far. Sixty seconds later and it was job done even better as United scored.
Juan Mata’s resurgence under Mourinho, who sold him when at Chelsea, has featured public praise and captaining the side, and he now received an in-game salute from the Portuguese. This was to compliment the sublime pass from the right that anticipated Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s run and allowed the Armenian to beat Ruffier. This meant a 4-0 aggregate lead and tie over as the away goal meant Galtier’s team needed five to progress.
A concern for Mourinho was about to occur, though, as on 25 minutes Mkhitaryan had to be withdrawn with what appeared a muscle problem, so on came Marcus Rashford.
The manager’s selection showed he took the match seriously. Of the strongest XI he could field only David de Gea, Anthony Martial and the suspended Ander Herrera were missing as he opted for Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan and Mata. Ashley Young is these days a reserve yet still he could motor from his right-back berth and lay on a pass a team-mate should have finished.
To their credit the home crowd maintained the volume and cheered every St-Etienne foray forward however slight or unthreatening. There were little of these to report as the period neared its conclusion. It was a case of United toying with the men in green and attacking when fancy took. An example came when, following a touchline tussle along the left, Rashford barrelled down the flank, pivoted, and fed Ibrahimovic. The No9 cut infield and blasted at Ruffier but his aim was too high and Mourinho wheeled away in frustration.
Moments from the break his side suffered a scare. Kevin Monnet-Paquet raced through an inside left channel with Eric Bailly in pursuit. Sergio Romero rushed out and in the confusion the midfielder momentarily regained ball before Bailly nicked it.
Mourinho’s interval instruction may have been to retain focus and kill the opening minutes of the second half as in the first. After five minutes of home play United had a chance when Rashford won a corner on the left.
St-Etienne slumbered as Daley Blind took it short to Mata but his chipped cross yielded nothing.
Two United attacks followed. In the first Ibrahimovic tried to feed Pogba but he ended on the floor. Then, Marouane Fellaini went in behind but a left-foot effort went wide.
Mourinho had bewailed previous decisions by Deniz Aytekin and was about to be particularly displeased with the referee. Bailly had just been booked for a foul on Romain Hamouma when he seemed to step on the same player again. Out came the official’s yellow card again for the central defender and he was sent off on 63 minutes causing Mourinho to sacrifice Mata for a replacement centre-back Marcos Rojo.
Bailly, then, is suspended for the last-16 first leg. As United still compete in four fronts this will not cheer Mourinho. But what will is the manner in which his team executed the requirement this evening. More and more this is becoming the story of United under the 54-year-old.