A Zlatan Ibrahimovic hat-trick puts Manchester United in charge while Spurs toil on Belgian soil in a mixed night for the two Premier League sides remaining in the Europa League.
Gent 1 Tottenham Hotspur 0
Spurs’ away woes continued as they were beaten by their mid-table Belgian opponents and then suffered an injury scare involving striker Harry Kane.
Spurs have now failed to win on the road since January 1 and were second-best for huge swathes of the Europa League Round of 32 first leg, with only a fine save from Hugo Lloris keeping the deficit to just the one.
Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko, in for Christian Eriksen and Heung-min Son, were Mauricio Pochettino’s only changes from the team beaten at Anfield, and the coach was bullish before kick-off, as if keen to justify his team selection.
“The Premier League is very important, but we have a two-week break. We want to get into the next round of the Europa League and FA Cup. We need to try to win those competitions.”
If the league title is looking like Chelsea’s to lose, the remaining Champions League spots are still a five-horse race, so prioritising the Europa League makes plenty of sense.
But Fantasy managers with Spurs assets – there are seven players with at least a 6% ownership base – might question Pochettino’s desire to maintain campaigns on three fronts when his squad is already stretched to the limit.
And that was before Kane’s injury, which Pochettino elaborated on post-match.
“I think we need to assess some players. Harry Kane got a knock on his knee, different players too. We need to refresh the team and we’ll do that. Tottenham will play in Fulham on Sunday. It’s not the name of the players, it’s the club. We’ll see, but we’ll put out a team with aims to win and be ready again to compete.”
Kane himself played down any problem, saying “it should be fine” when asked if he would be fit to face Fulham.
Without Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose, Pochettino has reverted to a back four that has compromised the team’s defensive stability while greatly reducing the attacking impact of Dele Alli, given a much freer role when Tottenham employ wing-backs to create attacking width.
With Kane starved of service and Son inconsistent, Spurs are suddenly struggling for goals – they have just three from their last four league matches – and rarely threatened in Belgium.
The next ten days now look key for those of us with Spurs players in our squads. If Pochettino is true to his word and fields another strong side which prevails against Fulham in the FA Cup, then Gameweek 28’s trip to Crystal Palace will be postponed.
The second leg of the Gent tie follows next Thursday before Gameweek 27’s home fixture with Stoke – two matches in four days that will stretch Spurs’ squad, and Fantasy managers’ patience, further still.
Spurs XI: Lloris, Walker, Alderweireld, Dier, Davies, Wanyama, Dembele (Son 68), Winks (Eriksen 80), Sissoko (Nkoudou 71), Alli, Kane.
Subs not used: Vorm, Trippier, Onomah, Wimmer.
Manchester United 3 Saint-Etienne 0
A canny Zlatan and a compliant referee moved Manchester United to within touching distance of the Europa League Round of 16.
Much like his Spurs counterpart, Jose Mourinho opted for a strong line-up, with Sergio Romero and Marouane Fellaini coming in for David de Gea and the ill Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Unlike Pochettino, the United boss has a squad of real depth and he utilised a number of his attacking options from the bench to take the tie away from Saint-Etienne in the second half.
Ibrahimovic’s hat-trick was painful for both the French and his 1.8+million Fantasy owners, coming as it did during a comparatively barren spell of just one goal from his last four league starts.
The Swede bought the free-kick from which he opened the scoring with a heftily deflected shot. That was followed by a tap in at the far post for his second following fine work by substitute Marcus Rashford and then he relied on the referee’s generosity once more when he fell in the penalty area, under minimal contact, picked himself up and stroked home the resultant spot-kick.
United rode their luck before the break and dominated after it, although Saint-Etienne were left to rue missing a couple of fine chances to secure an away goal. Then again, Paul Pogba, who hasn’t scored in six league matches, was just as profligate when heading against the crossbar from close range.
Mourinho’s squad remains strong, which is just as well when you’re fighting on four fronts. If, as expected, United see the tie out next Wednesday in France, they will be back in European action on March 9 and 16 – before trips to Southampton and Middlesbrough respectively.
The matches are going to come thick and fast for the Red Devils from now until the end of the season, but if any club has the squad to cope, it is United.
Mourinho certainly wasn’t taking anything for granted when he spoke post-match about the return leg in France.
“(Ander) Herrera is suspended, so it is a good rest for him. He has been playing every match. But, you know, I always respect football, and I know that football can be nasty with you. I don’t want my team to be punished, so I will go with a strong team.”
The 39.6%-owned Ibrahimovic aside, Fantasy managers have been relatively cool on United assets recently, in part because they won’t be back in league action until Gameweek 27.
A possible Gameweek 28 blank and the likelihood of squad rotation to combat the major fixture congestion to come is unlikely to change that stance, even though Mourinho’s men have an attractive domestic schedule through to the middle of April.
Man United XI: Romero, Valencia, Smalling, Bailly, Blind, Mata (Rashford 70), Herrera, Fellaini (Lingard 45), Martial (Young 85), Pogba, Ibrahimovic.
Subs not used: de Gea, Rojo, Schweinsteiger, Darmian.