It should not have been a night for nasty surprises. If this tie was put to bed when Juan Mata crossed for Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the 17th minute, it had brushed its teeth and had its bedtime story read last week in Manchester. Not even the locals anticipated a shock: St Etienne’s supporters arrived with the intention of creating their own party atmosphere, but were not expecting their players to help lift the mood.
Even if the most pessimistic of Manchester United’s travelling support feared an uncomfortable evening in the milky Loire sunshine, those worries must have been allayed by Jose Mourinho’s starting line-up. An EFL Cup final at Wembley is on the horizon, but United’s manager selected a strong, attacking line-up. Antonio Valencia and David de Gea were the only two available members of the manager’s established first-choice team left on the bench.
In fact, the only black mark against United actually lay in the strength of his selection. The Portuguese has been keen to point out the potentially debilitating impact of his side’s continued participation in four competitions twice in recent weeks: “We are going to have a very difficult season compared with other clubs. Liverpool will play 16 matches until the end of the season, Chelsea will play 16 plus some in the FA Cup and we are in this really crazy situation.”
In “crazy situations”, a manager must surely bask in the stolen moments of tranquillity. The 3-0 lead established at Old Trafford last week may not have told the whole story of that match, but it allowed United to place one foot and four toes in the Europa League’s last-16. Would this not have been the right time to keep his key players in reserve, particularly after some were required against Blackburn just three days prior?
So there was Zlatan Ibrahimovic again, his 91st start since the start of last season at the ages of 34 and 35. There was Paul Pogba, who barely had a pre-season to speak of and who will surely make his 36th start of the campaign on Sunday. There was Michael Carrick, who Mourinho has previously stated cannot play two games in a week, and who sustained an inevitable injury. There was Eric Bailly, the only Manchester United player one yellow card away from a ban, and who then promptly picked up two. Why, why, why and why?
There too was Mkhitaryan, rested for the home leg last Thursday and then bizarrely called upon with the tie effectively over. If Mourinho’s team selection placed his key players in the way of unnecessary potential harm, United’s manager paid the price. Mkhitaryan had already scored the opening goal by the time he signalled to the bench that he had a hamstring injury, and headed straight down the tunnel upon being substituted.
Mourinho doesn't sound confident Mkhitaryan or Carrick will be fit for EFL Cup final. "Hamstring and calf, I think three days is no time."
— Rob Dawson (@RobDawsonMEN) February 22, 2017
The initial concern is that both Mkhitaryan and Carrick will struggle to make Sunday’s Wembley date, but that is only the first of many assignments. United face a possible 24 fixtures between now and May 27 – 24 games in 95 days. There is no ideal moment for any elite player to suffer from muscle strains, but in Mourinho’s eyes this might be the worst possible timing.
“We cannot choose competitions at Manchester United,” said Mourinho in the second of his two recent fulminations about his team’s upcoming schedule. No Jose, but you can choose your players, and you can choose from a squad you yourself have assembled. You can understand why any manager would want to pick their stars, but involvement deep into four competitions surely requires an economy of selection. Two injuries is unfortunate, but that’s like complaining about a brick landing on your head when you’re stood in a building site without wearing a hard hat.
Instead, what should have been an early evening stroll provided a headache that may keep supporters up long into the night. The infuriating element to this potential problem is that it was all so utterly avoidable. Remember the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard when Mourinho complains of fatigue in a month’s time.