Manchester United took a huge step towards the Europa League Round of 16 as Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored his first hat-trick for the club in a 3-0 win over Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford.
The no.9 claimed the first when his low free-kick deflected in on 15 minutes before tucking home from close range and adding a late penalty to seal the treble, taking his tally to 23 goals in all competitions this season.
It gives Jose Mourinho’s men a firm cushion heading into the Round of 32 second leg next Wednesday at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
In the first of four consecutive cup matches, Mourinho named a strong line-up boasting just two changes from the 2-0 win over Watford last Saturday as Sergio Romero replaced David De Gea in goal and Marouane Fellaini came in for the ill Henrikh Mkhitaryan, with Paul Pogba moving into the no.10 role as he faced his older brother and Saint-Etienne defender Florentin.
Backed throughout by vociferous support from their fans, the French visitors – currently fifth in Ligue 1 – had an early chance when Romain Hamouma was clean through on goal but Romero, making his seventh appearance of the season, raced out and did well to close down the angle.
United quickly settled into their rhythm with Fellaini having a goal ruled out after Juan Mata was flagged offside in the build-up, before Anthony Martial went close, the Frenchman’s 20-yard shot forcing Stephane Ruffier to push it clear.
But the Saint-Etienne keeper was wrongfooted as the Reds made the breakthrough on the quarter-hour mark. After being bundled over just outside the box, Ibrahimovic took responsibility for the set-piece and his low free-kick took a huge deflection off Vincent Pajot before slowly trundling over the goal-line.
The goal eased the nerves and was just what United needed, amid a charged atmosphere inside the Theatre of Dreams. It almost got better when Pogba dinked a pass forward to Mata but his volley was well-saved by Ruffier, who also kept out the follow-up.
As the tempo increased, there were chances for both teams with Saint-Etienne’s on-loan Newcastle midfielder Henri Saivet twice firing narrowly wide of the post, before Martial was denied again by the feet of Ruffier, who was fortunate that the rebound inadvertently hit Ibrahimovic and bounced over.
At the other end, Saint-Etienne came on strong before the interval as Hamouma and Jordan Veretout both went close and an entertaining first half drew to a close with the Reds holding a slender advantage.
HALF-TIME MATCH STATS:
Possession: United 66% Saint Etienne 34%
Shots: United 7 Saint Etienne 11
Shots on target: United 5 Saint Etienne 0
Corners: United 1 Saint Etienne 1
United made an alteration at the break as Mourinho turned to the pace of Jesse Lingard, who took the place of Fellaini. After Martial picked up a booking for clashing with Kevin Malciut, the Reds had a second goal ruled out as Ibrahimovic’s header from a fine Mata cross was chalked off for offside.
The hosts had a firm grip of proceedings and looked more of a potent threat in the second period. Pogba and Valencia went close with efforts from outside the box, before Martial was again thwarted by Ruffier after cleverly skipping past two defenders.
But there was a blow for the Reds when Ander Herrera was booked for handball, which rules the Spaniard out of next week’s second leg.
His midfield partner Pogba continued to impress and was inches away from adding to his nine goals this season when his powerful header from a Daley Blind cross six yards out thumped the crossbar.
United introduced Marcus Rashford, who made his 50th appearance for the club, in place of Mata – a year on since he burst onto the scene at this stage of the competition with a brace on his debut against FC Midtjylland.
Saint-Etienne, who didn’t have a shot on target throughout despite causing problems to the United defence, could have snatched an equaliser when substitute Nolan Roux dinked an effort over Romero but it landed on the roof of the net.
The Reds, however, doubled the lead on 75 minutes as Rashford’s cross deflected into the path of Ibrahimovic who slotted home from six yards.
And the striker completed a memorable evening for him personally two minutes from time, picking himself up after being fouled in the box by Kevin Theophile-Catherine before sending Ruffier the wrong way from the spot to have the final say in style.
It meant the Reds’ leading scorer this season continued to be the scurge of the French side, having now scored 17 goals in 14 appearances against St-Etienne.
United had further opportunities to extend the advantage but saw out a fifth successive clean sheet and will take huge confidence heading into next week’s second leg.
FULL-TIME MATCH STATS:
Possession: United 62% Saint Etienne 38%
Shots: United 21 Saint Etienne 14
Shots on target: United 8 Saint Etienne 0
Corners: United 5 Saint Etienne 1
United: Romero; Valencia, Bailly, Smalling (c), Blind; Herrera, Fellaini (Lingard 45); Mata (Rashford 70), Pogba, Martial (Young 85); Ibrahimovic.
Subs not used: De Gea, Darmian, Rojo, Schweinsteiger.
Booked: Martial, Herrera, Lingard, Pogba
Saint Etienne: Ruffier, Theophile-Catherine, Pogba (Beric 79), Perrin (c), Pajot (Selnaes 72), Veretout, Saivet, Hamouma, Malcuit, Monnet-Paquet, Jorginho (Roux 65).
Subs not used: Moulin, Lacroix, Lemoine, Pierre-Gabriel.