Saint-Étienne (France) (AFP) – Winning by a single goal away to Saint Etienne in the Europa League may not seem a significant milestone for a team of Manchester United’s stature but manager Jose Mourinho knew otherwise.
United are desperate to recapture the glory days of past when under Alex Ferguson they dominated the Premier League, winning 13 titles in 21 years.
Since the great Scot’s departure, United have failed to even qualify for the Champions League in two of three seasons, with a best league finish of fourth place.
Last season under Louis van Gaal they did at least claim a trophy — the FA Cup — but with the self-styled ‘Special One’ Mourinho at the helm, there is a growing feeling that the Red Devils are building momentum.
And Wednesday night’s controlled, professional, clinical display at the Geoffroy Guichard ‘Cauldron’ epitomised the change in United’s recent fortunes.
Firstly, the statistics show that United are in championship-winning form: 15 wins from their last 19 matches in all competitions, conceding just eight goals.
“We are not unbeatable but the record is really good,” said Mourinho after Wednesday’s game.
They have scored in 25 of the last 26 matches and lost only once in that time, progressing in three cup competitions and closing in on the Champions League places.
Catching Chelsea and winning the league might be beyond them but finishing the season in the top four and with one or more trophies looks increasingly likely.
But for a raft of draws early in the campaign, they would likely be challenging Chelsea for top spot.
With eight wins and three draws from their last 11 league matches, they have picked up more points than anyone else over that period.
But they have nine draws this season compared to Chelsea’s three and that has been the difference, particularly at home.
The likes of Stoke, Burnley, West Ham and Hull have all left Old Trafford with a share of the spoils.
They have only the ninth best points per game ratio at home in the league, while away they have dropped the fewest points alongside Chelsea and Manchester City.
– Ruthless –
But at Saint Etienne there was an indication that Mourinho is really starting to stamp his authority on this team and that the season could yet end in great success.
United were ruthless. Leading 3-0 from the first leg at Old Trafford, they extinguished any faint hopes St Etienne may have harboured of getting back into the tie with a goal of beautiful simplicity after just 16 minutes.
Juan Mata made space on the left and crossed for Henrikh Mkhitarayan, dissecting the home centre-backs with a clever angled run, to prod nonchalantly past goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier.
Saint Etienne coach Christophe Galtier admitted United were “clearly better” than his team and had “left us no hope” by killing the tie early.
From then on, United controlled the game expending minimal energy.
Mkhitaryan and Michael Carrick were forced off with injuries but were replaced with the effervescent pace and energy of Marcus Rashford and the cool experience of World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Even when Eric Bailly was sent off for two bookable offences, United reorganised quickly and settled into a deep counter-attacking style that saw them remain far more dangerous than St Etienne, even with 10 men.
Mourinho has proved increasingly adept at managing his resources as the season has progressed in efficient rather than spectacular style.
They have scored four goals in a game six times this season, but only once in the league, which explains why they have scored 16 fewer goals than the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool.
But United are gathering momentum, scoring goals when it matters most while becoming increasingly miserly at the back.
On Sunday they tackle Southampton in the League Cup final and victory would be worth more than simple silverware.
It would provide a statement that the real United are back to their best.
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