In two first-half moments on Wednesday, Henrikh Mkhitaryan reminded Manchester United fans just how important he has become to their team.
First he provided a composed finish to Juan Mata’s wonderful cross to kill off the Europa League tie against Saint-Etienne. Then, within 10 minutes, he left the game feeling his right hamstring, immediately sending the supporters into a spin with worry over his potential absence from Sunday’s EFL Cup final clash with Southampton.
The hope will be that the Armenian alerted the United bench at the very first sign of a tightening of his hamstring muscle and that he will be fit and firing for this weekend’s Wembley date. Such is his growing importance to Jose Mourinho’s side, he is among a handful of players United really do find it difficult to replace at the moment. Sure, they have the numbers, but in terms of that game-winning edge, United rely on Mkhitaryan just as much as they do 24-goal Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
With his 16th-minute flick beyond Stephane Ruffier, Mkhitaryan took his tally to three goals in six starts, with two assists also against his name in that time. But, more than that, he exemplified why United had decided to snap him up last summer before holding him back through the autumn as he came to terms with the plan Mourinho had in mind for him.
Just as his killer pass for Marcus Rashford on Sunday put the Red Devils on the right track to cup success at Blackburn, his goal at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard drew that last bit of sting from the tie after United’s 3-0 first-leg success. Their 4-0 aggregate triumph was closed out well from thereon in.
Eric Bailly might have gone on a one-man mission to inject some more drama back into proceedings by earning two yellow cards in the space of three minutes around the hour mark, but United ultimately had already built up too big an advantage.
Their tactical discipline was pitch perfect, with their approach being an exact model of what most managers look for in a European away performance. Even after Mkhitaryan’s early withdrawal, his replacement Rashford was given the licence to get in behind and cause further problems without United overly stretching themselves.
That the loss of Mkhitaryan and the suspension picked up by Bailly are the only negatives to come from the evening say much about how United handled the evening. But the former in particular is a rather hefty price to pay if it turns out to be a long-term issue.
With their continuation of their run in the Europa League, United’s jam-packed calendar looks increasingly precarious. And, while they have the quantity to absorb a handful of injuries, there will rightly be grave concern over the next four days as Mkhitaryan races to be fit for the final.