Europa League review: A bit of Ibrahimovic magic

Zlatan-Ibrahimovic

Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic, middle, celebrates with teammates after scoring against Saint-Etieene . (AP Photo/Dave Thompson)

• UEFA Europa League, Old Trafford – Manchester United 3 (Ibrahimovic 15’, 75’, 88’), Saint-Etienne 0

In a Round of 32, first leg tie billed as a battle of the Pogba brothers—Man United’s Paul vs. older sibling Florentin of Saint-Etienne, with mother Yeo watching from the stands—it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic who stole the headlines with a hat trick in Thursday’s tilt.

None of the goals were vintage Ibra. The first was a fluke, the second a tap in, and the third came from the penalty spot. Aside from that, the Swede offered very little. The final score line rather flattered the Red Devils—on the balance of play, they weren’t three goals better than the visitors. But that won’t matter to United, who turned back the challenge of a plucky Saint-Etienne side to take firm control of this two-leg affair.

Les Verts (The Greens) more than held their own for most of the match, especially in the opening 45 minutes that was played at a pretty torrid pace. Saint-Etienne was dangerous going forward, and put United’s defence under pressure. A lack of finishing was their undoing, though—the Frenchmen attempted 11 shots in the first half; none of them hit the target.

Saint-Etienne continued to trouble United on the counter attack in the second half, especially with the introduction of Nolan Roux in the 65th minute. The hosts continued to ride their luck when Roux missed a glorious chance. Minutes later, Ibrahimovic bagged his second goal to kill off the contest.

TALKING POINT

Could the Europa League be Man United’s way back into the Champions League?
With the Red Devils currently sitting sixth in the Premier League table and two points out of a Champions League berth, winning the Europa League could very well be their best route back to European club’s soccer biggest stage. Little wonder, then, that Jose Mourinho fielded a strong starting 11 on Thursday that included Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Juan Mata and Anthony Martial, and that he is taking this completion so seriously now that it’s in the knockout stages.

MAN OF THE MATCH

Stephane Ruffier: Yeah, Ibrahimovic scored three goals. But the Saint-Etienne goalkeeper was simply outstanding, making a number of big saves throughout the game to keep the French side in it. His best effort came in the 11th minute—Martial cut in from the left and curled a dangerous effort towards the far post, but Ruffier made a spectacular diving stop to deny the hosts.

KEY MOMENT

75’ GOAL! Manchester United 2-0 Saint-Etienne: Moments after Roux squandered a great chance to equalize by clipping over the crossbar from close range, the “Super Swede” put the game away with his second goal of the contest. Marcus Rashford did very well to get to the byline, centering a pass for a wide open Ibrahimovic to slot home into an empty net.

KEY STAT

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