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 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 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 denied 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 inches 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.