Manchester United will face Saint-Etienne in the Round of 32 of this season’s UEFA Europa League.
Without disrespecting their opponents, United will be pleased with the draw, given the calibre of other potential ties and the travelling involved in others.
The short journey across the channel will be a welcome relief, having already made trips to Turkey and Ukraine in the group stage.
The first leg at Old Trafford will take place on Thursday 16 February, with United at home after finishing second in the group behind Fenerbahce.
St. Etienne topped Group C ahead of Anderlecht, taking 12 points from their six games in a round robin consisting of Mainz and Gabala.
They only scored eight goals but conceded just five, with Florentin Pogba part of that solid defence.
That surname sounds familiar, and he is indeed related to our very own Paul, who is the younger brother of Florentin, with this tie being labelled the ‘Pogba Derby’ so soon, as United continue to dominate headlines despite other fixtures including Villarreal against Roma.
The second leg at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard will take place on Thursday 23 February, a stadium used during this summer’s European Championships.
The FA Cup fifth round is scheduled to be sandwiched between the two legs, meaning United could have a week’s rest or full week of knockout matches.
Regardless of the FA Cup progress, a Sunday game is guaranteed following the return leg, with either the EFL Cup Final or Manchester derby at the Etihad due to take centre stage.
Managed by Christophe Galtier, St. Etienne are lingering in eighth place in Ligue 1 at the time of writing, but United themselves are limping ahead in sixth.
However, with the weekend’s victory over Tottenham Hotspur and a reasonable run of fixtures, as well as other results and rival teams due to face another, a top four place seems very much alive with the halfway stage of the season not yet reached.
With many teams, particularly English clubs, struggling to juggle both the league and Europa League in recent teams, it’ll be interesting to see which is prioritised come February if indeed the top four looks likely.
The problem with focusing on the Europa League is a huge risk, as Liverpool found out last season, reaching the final before succumbing to Sevilla’s comeback triumph.
Not only is this a trophy, it would be the first title in the competition in United’s rich history, where a place in next season’s Champions League is guaranteed for the eventual winner.
Jose Mourinho’s experienced head will be trusted to get it right, in what could be an intriguing second of the season, but United, on paper, are one of, if not the strongest team remaining.
With the emergence of Paris St-Germain and their wealth, the dominance of the noughties by Lyon, and big clubs including Marseille, Monaco and Lille, you would be forgiven for not noticing the side in green.
Under the radar, however, goes France’s most successful club with 10 league titles to their name, with the 1960’s particular a fruitful period.
One man who will be returning to France less than a year after leaving is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who bagged 14 goals in 13 matches during his PSG days, more than against any other side during his illustrious career.
The final will also be played in his native Sweden, a huge incentive for the burly striker.
Elsewhere, Spurs face Gent, where the former are another side who may prioritise the Europa League if their top four prospects seem diminished.
Take nothing for granted but this is a winnable tie for United, and a chance to stamp their mark on the competition.
Let’s hope that come May, United are lifting the crown, where their route to the final starts with St. Etienne.