Europa League Previews – AZ v OL and Manchester United v Saint Etienne
Ah, the Europa League. In the qualifying rounds you can find your Game of Thrones name by sticking a pin in the fixture list, and France usually lose a team (Lille, this year). In the group stages, this is often made up by somebody dropping out of C1 qualifying (well done Monaco for bucking that trend, as well as many others, this season). And now the knock-out round, with hashtags like spare demons from The Exorcist. Thursdays are again a distraction / chance for glory.
AZ v OL
Lyon drop down from C1 after a tough group that saw them finish third behind Juventus and Sevilla, which is little shame. They are in the midst of a slightly iffy run: 4th in Ligue 1, and Alexandre Lacazette has 20 goals for OL in three consecutive seasons, but they have lost five of the last seven in the league. Most recently they went down 2-1 against Guingamp at the weekend (ending a six-game run without a win for EAG) as under-fire manager Bruno Genesio missed the game with ‘flu. Things do not look peachy at the Parc OL…
Their opponents have battled through this competition having started in the 3rd qualifying round, and finishing second in the group behind Zenit, as they failed to beat Maccabi Tel Aviv over two legs. They are currently fourth in the Eredivise after a 2-1 away win against Heerenveen at the weekend, so maybe in a better frame of mind for this than their visitors. They do seem to have a slight concession problem, with 32 shipped in 22 league games so far, the highest in the top half of the table, so OL will be hoping that means their occasionally stuttering attack can at least get an away goal.
Selection-wise, mildly unpredictable rightback Rafael and always busy midfielder Mathieu Valbuena are absent, the latter probably more of an issue than the former. New recruit Memphis Depay is also not in the group as cup-tied. Genesio’s formation may therefore be a bit CM-heavy in the usual 4-3-3, and while his team are favourites (indicative 4/5) don’t rule out something going wrong – again – for OL…
Manchester United v Saint-Etienne
Pogba v Pogba. Mourinho’s haircut v Galtier’s jacket. Zlatan v Ruffier. The free-jazz stylings of Bryan Dabo. So much to look forward to…
Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 156 goals for PSG, and 14 of those were against Saint-Etienne. That makes ASSE his favouritest opponent ever, most notably in the 2014/15 season where he scored two hat-tricks against them, first in the 5-0 league hammering that started with Stephane Ruffier passing casually into his own net, secondly the Coupe de France semi-final that ended 4-1. His old sparring partner Moustapha Bayal Sall has moved on – FFW takes a moment – but Zlatan will still have Ruffier’s sense of self on his radar.
Among those attempting to protect les Verts’ keeper will be Florentin Pogba, in a fraternal match-up that will no doubt have TV commentary teams saying “and that’s Florentin, ha, not his more famous younger brother” as a wayward shot is hoicked safely into row whatever at Old Trafford. For his part, Florentin seems as no-nonsense about his brother’s fame as he is about defending, saying in a recent interview, “I’m proud of my family and, besides, whenever I hear that stuff I always think that nearly every other player on the pitch is also someone’s brother”. Recently employed at left-back rather than in the centre, where he starts – and what defensive formation is picked more generally – will be interesting. There’s also a decent chance of Pogba-on-Pogba marking on set-pieces at both ends of the pitch.
From a managerial point of view, Christophe Galtier is maybe not the best at making in-game changes if things aren’t going well, preferring a sideline approach of shouting, shrugging, possibly sulking, and occasionally leaving captain Loic Perrin (if fit) to do the post-match interview heavy lifting. However it can’t be denied that he has dealt with an extremely difficult series of injuries that has forced rotation – and sometimes lack of it – and ASSE are still fifth in the league and through to the knock-out stage.
Alexander Söderlund is knacked, which seems to leave Nolan Roux as the main striking option, but Saint-Etienne have options elsewhere, such as a rejuvenated Kevin Monnet-Paquet on the wing, and a promising start for new acquisition Jorginho, who scored on his debut at the weekend. Plus, if Romain Hamouma is fit and feisty, he is les Verts’ most creative player; if not, or if Galtier goes 5-at-the-back hoping for a 0-0, this first leg could be a frustrating affair for the visitors.
Mourinho recently said that Luke Shaw will not start “because my team is playing well and I am happy with my back four, I am going to repeat Valencia, Bailly, Smalling and Daley Blind”, thus repeating the backline that played in the 2-0 victory over Watford at the weekend. Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick are not available although Marcus Rojo is.
It’s difficult to see anything other than a home win here, but Saint-Etienne had a morale-boosting 4-0 win against lanterne rouge Lorient at the weekend – they will be hoping to score, and keep it close, to take a chance back to the Geoffroy-Guichard.