The second Henrikh Mkhitaryan headed towards the touchline, social media spun into action. Everybody suddenly knew better than Jose Mourinho. Hindsight was the winner, as always.
The charge laid at the Manchester United manager’s door was that he should never have risked so many first-team players for the second leg of the Europa League round of 32 clash with Saint-Etienne. A 3-0 lead from the first leg was enough of a buffer, his critics claimed, to allow Mourinho to rest his preferred staff for Sunday’s EFL Cup final against Southampton.
Instead Mourinho sent out a strong line-up in the south of France, and Mkhitaryan and Michael Carrick are now both huge doubts for the Wembley showpiece.
“Honestly, I don’t think he is fit,” Mourinho said of Mkhitaryan at his post-match press conference. “I think him and Michael they are both out. This is based on my experience, not based on my medical knowledge. A calf, a hamstring, even if it is minor, minor – some fibres damaged – I think they are out.”
But in truth there was little more Mourinho could have done. Yes, United may have won the first leg 3-0 but the manager was as honest in his assessment as anyone after the Old Trafford fixture, admitting that his side were very lucky to have such an advantage given the fact Saint-Etienne had given them such a rough ride.
Had he known before the game that Les Verts would carry nothing like the same threat at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, had he known that he would see two of his players go down with injuries, had he known that Eric Bailly would make two silly challenges in the space of three minutes to earn himself a suspension, of course he would have chosen a different line-up.
But the facts he had at his disposal before the game were that Saint-Etienne were a dangerous side, that the home fans at the stadium deservedly known as “The Cauldron” would make things exceedingly difficult, and that he would find his side running the risk of elimination were they to concede early with a group of players in whom he has less faith than his starters.
Lest we forget that one of the players he has been chastised for risking, Mkhitaryan, was the man who settled the tie. Had the Armenian not netted in the 16th minute, United’s night would have been far less straight-forward than it turned out.
What would have been the reaction had he seen his side dumped out of Europe? Surely heading for Wembley with a slightly-altered first XI to the one planned in his mind is the lesser of two evils.
The football world is full of people ready to offer a contrary opinion so that they can crow at “being right” and somehow more reliable than an experienced manager like Mourinho. But whether United go on to win Sunday’s final or suffer defeat, the Portuguese has surely done right by his club in risking injury to his first-choice players.
The manager went on to complain about the scheduling of the FA Cup tie with Chelsea three days before potentially a long Europa League trip, and made a very pertinent point in doing so.
“I need to treat Manchester United supporters in the right way. I cannot go there with the under-21s.”
The travelling army of United fans in Saint-Etienne deserved more than to see a shadow squad struggle their way through a fixture that the first XI ended up handling with some authority. With Sergio Romero, Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini in for David de Gea, Antonio Valencia and the suspended Ander Herrera there was some acknowledgement of the need to rotate, but there was never going to be a full-scale overhaul.
Those digging out Mourinho on his team selection will never be happy. They are intent on finding fault and not accepting that sometimes injuries are going to occur to footballers. If the manager can get his head around that, why not his critics?
Mourinho had every right to enlist the likes of Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba for the task of closing out a tricky European tie. More than that, he was 100 per cent correct in doing so.