Manchester United returns to Europa League action this week and faces one of France’s most important clubs, Saint-Etienne. The Reds entertain Les Verts at Old Trafford in the first leg this Thursday before heading to the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard for the return match next week. Rant had a grand tête-à-tête with French Football Weekly’s Jeremy Smith to get the lowdown on the team from the Rhône-Alpes.
This isn’t the first time the two teams have squared off with their last encounter coming in 1977-78 Cup Winner’s Cup first round. United emerged victorious but had to play the second leg home match at Home Park in Plymouth as a punishment for crowd trouble in the first game. The Reds drew the away leg 1-1 before winning 2-0 at ‘home’.
United Rant: Bonjour, first thing’s first what’s the vibe like amongst Saint-Etienne fans in the run-up to the tie? Didn’t the club have to suspend ticket sales because of “historic interest”?
Jeremy Smith: They’re excited! Rightly or wrongly, French fans are extremely in thrall to English football and Manchester United is of course one of the biggest names around. OK, they’re not quite as big as they were – the fact that this tie is in the Europa League speaks for itself. But Saint-Etienne have been starved of genuinely huge European nights since their heyday of the 70s and this is the best chance they’ve had in a very long time to try to recreate those nights.
Rant: How has Saint-Etienne’s form been coming into the first leg of this encounter?
JS: Saint-Etienne are having their standard season, quietly going about their business and staying around the Europa League spots without doing anything spectacular. In 2017 they’ve generally been very solid. Three straight wins in the league in recent weeks – the last being a very comfortable 2-0 win over Lyon in a very bad-tempered derby (although comfortable, this was as much to do with Lyon’s poor performance as Saint-Etienne’s good showing). In midweek they lost their first league match since mid-December, 1-0 at Nice. Nice are having a great season so a narrow defeat there isn’t anything to be ashamed of, though Saint-Etienne rarely looked like getting anything from the game. They bounced back this weekend though with a very comfortable 4-0 win over bottom club Lorient. Also worth noting that they were recently knocked out of the Coupe de France (3-0 after extra time) to Auxerre – who are bottom of Ligue 2.
Rant: How does Saint-Etienne’s head coach, Christophe Galtier, generally set-up his side? What style of play does he like to employ and do you see him deviating from his preferred game plan?
JS: It’s fair to say that Christophe Galtier is not the most attacking minded of coaches – certainly not since Aubameyang left a few years back. Les Verts’ game is based mainly on keeping it tight at the back and attempting to grab narrow victories. This season’s stats are a case in point – only PSG have conceded fewer – but eight teams have scored more! In his defence, he has had to contend with a lot of injuries this year and been forced to play players out of position. But ideally, he’ll pack the midfield and use his wingers and a couple of decent attacking full-backs to provide ammunition from the wings.
Rant: How do you see Saint-Etienne lining up in terms of personnel and formation?
JS: Much depends on who is fit. For example, the latest player ruled out is striker Alexander Söderlund. With Robert Beric also likely to be out, the starting striker may well be Nolan Roux who, penalties aside, is not particularly clinical – although new signing Jorginho, who notched one goal and one assist on his first start vs Lorient, could be a wildcard.
Galtier will likely start with a 4-3-3 – though he has been known to go three at the back against stronger opposition. He may even choose to start with three defensive midfielders in the middle, but we’ll hope he limits it to two. Impressive young Norwegian midfielder Ole Selnaes will likely start and could see this tie as a good chance to make himself known to English clubs. Starting keeper Stéphane Ruffier should be back after being out injured since December. And he’ll rely as always on one-club man and captain Loïc Perrin to marshal the defence. Livewire Kévin Malcuit will hopefully start at right-back to bring a bit of rare excitement to the team.
There will be some familiar names to English football fans as ex-Cardiff defender Kévin Théophile-Catherine could start anywhere across the backline and at least one of ex-Villan Jordan Veretout and ex-Magpie Henri Saivet should appear in the middle.
Rant: Do you think Galtier would have preferred to play the first leg at home and not away?
JS: Not sure it makes much difference to him. Like most, he’s probably happier to be at home in the second leg. But knowing many French clubs’ inferiority complex against English clubs – and the way that Saint-Etienne set up in general – it probably won’t make a great deal of difference to how he plays both matches.
Rant: Galtier is trying to downplay the significance of this tie saying the games are the “least important matches of the month of February.” Is he just easing the pressure or is he really as blasé about the matches as he sounds?
There’s an element of that but I think he probably means it! French teams generally don’t take the Europa League very seriously at all – which is a little strange seeing as they take their foot off the gas in order to be fresh in the league in order to qualify for … the Europa League! But by their recent standards this is already a successful campaign and they are certainly not starting as favourites. So any result they get is a bonus.
Rant: An interesting sub-plot is that Paul Pogba’s brother, Florentin, plays for Saint-Etienne. What kind of player is Florentin and do you expect him to feature in the tie?
JS: If everyone is fit and well he will most likely partner Perrin in the centre of defence. It’s fair to say that Florentin is not quite as gifted as his little brother, but arguably he’s more consistent in a ‘what you see is what you get’ way. He’s a no nonsense head/thump the ball clear defender who is prone to the occasional ricket but is generally reliable and hard-working.
Rant: Who will be Saint-Etienne’s key player and who should United be wary of?
JS: Although left winger Kevin Monnet-Paquet is in good form, Saint-Etienne’s most talented player is right winger Romain Hamouma. He has had a stop-start couple of years due to injuries, but he is by some way Les Verts’ most creative player and is their league top scorer this season, as well as their joint-leading assister. He – and his understanding with Malcuit at right-back (if he starts and if he manages to stay on the pitch for 180 minutes) could be key to Saint-Etienne’s chances. Sadly, goalkeeper Ruffier is too often Saint-Etienne’s key player; hopefully for their fans that won’t need to be the case here.
Rant: If United could sign anyone from Saint-Étienne who would you recommend?
JS: No one really stands out. If Mourinho is looking for the type that he seems to have liked in the past – not necessarily able to play football but great for winding up and hacking down the opposition – then Vincent Pajot is his man. If Perrin was a little younger I’d have recommended him. Hamouma is also getting on a little bit now, at 29. Many think Ruffier deserves to be playing at a bigger club, so could be an option if De Gea leaves. Malcuit could be a good wildcard who, if reined in a little discipline-wise, could become a very good attacking right-back. Possibly the most interesting prospect in terms of potential is either Selnaes or Oussama Tannane, currently out injured but a talented attacking midfielder with a big ego that could go either way. Something for Mourinho to work with!
Rant: Would it be fair to say that Saint-Etienne aren’t too keen on seeing Zlatan Ibrahimović in the opposing team again?
JS: Definitely! Saint-Etienne were his favourite victims when he was in France – he scored 14 in 13 games against them and aside from the goals, there were a few memorable incidents too – including a red card for Zlatan for “de Jonging” Ruffier in the chest, a “do you know who I am?” moment with ex-ASSE defender Paul Baysse and several running battles with another former Verts defender – man-mountain Moustapha Bayal Sall.
Rant: What’s your prediction for the first leg and the tie overall?
JS: Much depends on the attitude that the two coaches go into the tie with – in terms of personnel and attacking intent. I don’t think the tie will be high-scoring at all. Saint-Etienne will hope to leave Old Trafford with a one goal deficit at worst and I think United will win the tie 1-0 or 2-0. I would love there to still be something at stake in the second leg, to see the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard at its best. My prediction, though, is United to qualify overall, by the odd goal or even by away goals.
Rant: And finally, what are the odds of a Saint Etienne song being played at either Old Trafford or Stade Geoffroy-Guichard?
JS: Well looking at their injury list earlier in the season you could have said to Galtier You’re In a Bad Way. Their recent form has been A Good Thing so lovers of Les Verts should be confident but everyone knows that Only Love Can Break Your Heart.
You follow Jeremy on Twitter @jeremysmith98 and read his take on French football at http://frenchfootballweekly.com/. You can also follow French Football Weekly @FrenchFtWeekly.