Man United take comfortable first-leg win vs. St. Etienne via Zlatan hat trick
MANCHESTER, England -- Three quick thoughts from Manchester United's 3-0 Europa League win over St. Etienne at Old Trafford on Thursday.
1. Man United take comfortable lead to France
It may be an exaggeration to say everyone else in the Europa League is quaking in their boots, but Manchester United illustrated why they have been billed as one of the favourites to win the competition. A place in the round of 16 is theirs for the taking.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic saw off St. Etienne with his first United hat trick, and a clean sheet means that, should they score in the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on Wednesday, their hosts will need at least five goals to eliminate them. United's away form in Europe has been mediocre the past 18 months, but this maintained a 100 percent home winning record in continental competition under Jose Mourinho.
In terms of budget, history and fame, United outstrip St. Etienne, but this pitted the side sixth in England with the team fifth in France, and the underdogs threatened to make life difficult for United. Certainly, the visitors can look back with regret on the moment Nolan Roux spurned a glorious chance to equalise, two minutes before Ibrahimovic scored his second. Henri Saivet, on loan to St. Etienne from Newcastle United, had twice come close from 20 yards, and St. Etienne menaced on a series of quick breaks.
But United's victory was ultimately emphatic and could have been still bigger. Anthony Martial, who was electric at times, twice drew fine saves from St. Etienne keeper Stephane Ruffier, and Paul Pogba struck the bar as United extended their unbeaten run at Old Trafford to 20 matches.
Mourinho merits credit, too. He brought on Jesse Lingard for Marouane Fellaini at half-time, and the substitute almost scored immediately. Mourinho introduced Marcus Rashford in another attacking change, and the replacement set up Ibrahimovic's second goal. Boldness brought its reward.
2. Zlatan the scourge of St. Etienne again
Ibrahimovic's meetings with St. Etienne have a tendency to prove explosive. He was sent off against them in 2012. He served a suspension for a poor challenge made against them on another occasion. In between disciplinary incidents, however, he has been prolific. He took his tally to 17 goals in 14 games against Les Verts on an evening when he was both clinical and wasteful, perhaps eliminating St. Etienne when he seemed to have offered them hope with a remarkable miss.
Ibrahimovic, who was prolific in Ligue 1, opened his account for the night after 15 minutes. If Ibrahimovic's free kick scarcely counted as one of his finest, it nevertheless showed the merits of trying to sneak one through or under the wall, instead of aiming for the top corner. His low shot struck Vincent Pajot, wrong-footing Ruffier, and the unfortunate goalkeeper watched as the ball rolled agonisingly slowly past him.
The surprise was that Ibrahimovic's tally for the night was not doubled until the final quarter of the contest. After half an hour, Martial embarked on a superb solo run, slaloming his way toward goal. Ruffier saved his shot, but succeeded only in palming the ball to Ibrahimovic. Six yards out, he somehow spooned his shot over.
When he found the net for a second time, his emphatic header was chalked off. The officials were right to rule he was offside when Juan Mata crossed. When Ruffier tipped over a deflected header, Ibrahimovic was onside. Finally, he struck again. Rashford charged clear on the left and his deflected cross fell for the Swede to steer in a shot. He completed a treble when Kevin Theophile-Catherine nudged him in the back and Ibrahimovic stroked home the penalty kick.
It may save Ibrahimovic a return to France. The second leg is four days before the EFL Cup final. The temptation for Mourinho must be to rest Ibrahimovic's 35-year-old legs for Wembley as United pursue silverware at Old Trafford.
3. Advantage Paul in brotherly battle
Such is the rapport between Pogba and Ibrahimovic that there are times when it has seemed that Pogba, the world's most expensive player, has had a big brother at Old Trafford. On this occasion, he actually did, but in the ranks of the visitors.
Florentin Pogba showed a willingness to surge forward, displaying his brother's fondness for solo runs and his own adventurous streak. A giant of a left-back, his immediate opponent represented an opposite, the short, technical Mata. A crunching challenge between them seemed an unfair contest for the Spaniard. Pogba towered over Mata and then helped him to his feet when Mata was grounded. That size was notable again when United had a corner -- Paul Pogba met it with a header and Florentin materialised to clear, seemingly exerting a magnetic effect.
Manager Christophe Galtier's tactic of defending narrowly meant Florentin was tucked inside when United had the ball, but headed for the touchline when St. Etienne were in possession. It made him a conspicuous figure, something that runs in the family. The Pogbas seem extroverts. Florentin has his jersey number, 19, shaved into the side of his head, along with his brother's No. 6. It was a display of fraternal solidarity, though this tie places their relatives in a difficult position. Mother Yeo was at Old Trafford, just as she will be at Wednesday's return leg, unsure who to support.
The younger brother, meanwhile, showed his passing range, using the ball both efficiently and creatively. He is looking assured in his deeper role, using it to dictate play and making a couple of well-judged interventions. He got forward to almost provide a second goal, spinning away from Jordan Veretout and curling a shot narrowly wide and then heading against the bar. It was another influential display from the world's most expensive player, but if he overshadowed his sibling, the brotherly battle will be renewed next week.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.