Three cup competitions, four games, 10 days. Manchester United’s Premier League campaign is on hold until March, with José Mourinho’s team focusing on the Europa League last-32, FA Cup fifth round, and the EFL Cup final for the rest of February. It promises to be a fascinating series of games that may culminate in Mourinho’s first silverware as United manager. First, however, is a tie with AS Saint-Étienne, the one-time grandee of French football, now fallen on leaner times.
United’s revival since November – save for the recent limp draws against Liverpool, Stoke City and Hull City – has taken Mourinho’s team to within four points of Manchester City in second place. Once a goal that looked to be disappearing over the horizon, Champions League qualification is now very much in United’s hands.
Indeed, with a fixture list that holds no games against fellow top six contenders until mid-April, the Reds remain in a strong position to challenge City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool for a place at Europe’s top table. With Chelsea way out in front, it’s three from five for the Champions League.
Yet, the league isn’t the only route into the Europe’s top competition though. Should United win the Europa League this season it comes with the prize of promotion to the continent’s elite. Before that United must navigate two fixtures against Saint-Étienne, ASSE, and potentially some high quality sides remaining in the tournament.
The once storied French club is now back in the relative big time after many years in football wilderness. ASSE finished sixth in League 1 last season under the guidance of manager Christophe Galtier, with a squad that includes Paul Pogba’s brother, Florentin, on-loan Aston Villa defender Jordan Veretout and international goalkeeper Stéphane Ruffier.
Galtier spent much of his playing career as a journeyman defender of no real repute, appearing for Marseille, Lille, and Toulouse, among many others, before spells at Monza in Italy and Liaoning in China. Nor has Galtier’s coaching career offered many highlights. He was a long time collaborator with Alain Perrin, first at Marseille, then Al Ain, Portsmouth and Sochaux, before his first shot at management proper ended in disaster with a dismissal at Aris Thessaloniki after a single season in charge.
Yet, under Galtier’s stewardship ASSE secured the French League Cup in 2013, which was the club’s first major domestic trophy for more than 30 years. The club finished sixth in League 1 last season, fifth a year earlier, and fourth before that. Galtier’s team remains in the hunt for Champions League qualification this season.
Galtier practices a pragmatic approach to the game on ASSE’s annual wage budget of little more than €40 million – less than Paul Pogba, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic earn combined. Underlining the philosophy, Galtier’s team has conceded just 19 goals in League 1 this season – fewer than all but Paris Saint Germain.
Much though Saint-Étienne’s recent revival is joyful for contemporary supporters, it, of course, the team of the 1970s for which ASSE remains famous. Between 1973 and 1976 Les Verts secured three French league titles in succession, two French cups, and finished runners-up in the 1976 European Cup Final.
The French team lost that final to Bayern Munich at Hampden Park, although it was no disgrace given the Germans’ fielded Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Gerd Müller and Uli Hoeneß. Twice Saint-Etienne hit the – infamously square shaped – bar in the opening 45 minutes, before Franz Roth scored the winner to secure Bayern’s third successive European Cup.
By the late ’70s Saint-Étienne was no longer the force of old, although the club secured its last League 1 title in 1981 with Michel Platini in the side. In 1977 ASSE met United over two legs in the now defunct Cup Winners Cup, with United’s Red Army invading the pitch during the away leg at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard – a violation incurring UEFA’s wrath and a temporary expulsion from the tournament. On appeal United’s ban was downgraded to a stadium suspension, with the Reds winning the ‘home’ leg in front of more than 30,000 at Home Park, Plymouth.
If that side of the ’70s is Saint-Etienne’s now distant history, then Galtier is the club’s modern-day bedrock. Manager since 2009, the 50-year-old cuts a passionate and loyal figure. The Marseillais is both an Anglophile and a long-time friend of Eric Cantona, with whom he played as a youth and for the French under-21 side. It will be a special night at Old Trafford.
“Eric? Ah, it was our story, the two years we played together for the Under-21s and we won the title,” Galtier told the Telegraph. “I remember the game we played in England. It was at Arsenal, at Highbury, 2-2. And it was an unbelievable game. Oh, the spirit. There was Paul Gascoigne playing for England and I remember man-to-man Eric and Paul Gascoigne on the pitch. Ah, big, big characters.”
“For Eric, Manchester United is a story of love. When he went to Leeds [United] he proposed to England. When he went to Manchester he married England. And he had such a strong, strong relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson was like his father.”
The home leg takes place at Old Trafford on Thursday, with the return a week later at the 42,000 capacity Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. With stands close to the pitch, it resembles many stadia in England. Geoffroy-Guichard hosted gamed during the 1984 European Championships, the 1998 World Cup and the 2003 Confederations Cup. More recently England played out a bore draw against Slovakia during a disastrous 2016 European Championship campaign.
“There is nowhere else in France like this,” says Galtier. “This is like England. Saint-Étienne is similar to Liverpool. Small city; it’s not rich. But one thing is different – Saint-Étienne is the only team in this city – and the colour. It is called by the colour. Les Verts. The Greens. Marseille, Paris, Monaco, Nantes. Not a colour. Here – Saint-Étienne: the Greens. Liverpool: the Reds. You understand?
“Here – only the football is important. And like, I think in England, the families are all fans – grandfather, father, son. You give back. And when I speak with my wife, and she asks me the same ‘Why you stay here?’ – and she’s happy, by the way – but I say: ‘It’s like in England.’”
On the pitch, Galtier will turn to stalwarts Pogba, Ruffier and one-club captain Loïc Perrin to shore up the defence. It’s a collective, not a team of stars. Probably much as the manager likes it. Lining up in a 4-3-3 system, Les Verts will set out to contain United in the first leg at Old Trafford, before seeking to edge the tie at home. Few in France expect a glut of goals. Those following United’s profligacy in England might expect much of the same.
“For me, Manchester United is the biggest club in the world,” Galtier adds. “It’s like a mountain. Mont Blanc. Himalayas. Big, big gap between Manchester and us. But I have my plan. Our objective is to still have hope for the game here.”
Not that ASSE is short of attacking options either. At the weekend talented winger Romain Hamouma led the line, and the Frenchman has scored six league goals this season.
[blockquote who=”Christophe Galtier” cite=””]For me, Manchester United is the biggest club in the world. It’s like a mountain. Mont Blanc. Himalayas.[/blockquote]
Elsewhere Portuguese youngster Jorge Fernando Barbosa, ‘Jorginho’, also scored as the team beat Lorient 4-0 at home at the weekend. ASSE has won five of the past 10 matches across all competitions – something of a revival after an indifferent start to the campaign.
United could say the same. The mini run of cup fixtures this month is a distraction from a league campaign that is likely to go to the wire, at least as far as Champions League qualification goes. Should United beat Saint-Étienne, Blackburn and then Southampton, confidence will be riding high for the league challenge to come.