I didn’t spend last Saturday at Old Trafford, or hunched over an online stream (legal, of course), watching Manchester United vs West Brom. I was in a shopping centre in Telford. I’ll leave it up to you, dear reader, to decide which offered the greater test of mental resolve.
Despite being detached from proceedings, like most United fans, I felt, before a ball was kicked, that I knew what the result would be. Sure enough, United failed to make their dominance pay, and yet another mid-table team left Old Trafford with a well-earned point.
What the latest in a long list of homes draws does mean for United is that the team sit five points off that elusive fourth place and Champions League qualification. And while that’s with games in hand, it’s hard to see Mourinho’s men achieving that particular Holy Grail with fixtures against top four rivals Man City and champions-elect Chelsea, as well as another pre-determined draw against 7th place Everton, to come before the end of April. After all, they can’t beat West Brom right now and barely got past all-but-relegated Middlesbrough a fortnight earlier.
So with the League offering scant hope of a seat at Europe’s top table, do United focus all attention on the Champions League’s much-maligned little sister, the Europa League?
While the competition is notoriously unpredictable, as knock-out football always is, United are now just five matches from lifting the trophy. Having been fortunate to draw the geographically convenient and modestly equipped Belgian runners-up Anderlecht, the competition really does look United’s for the taking.
At worst the next five European games look like this – Anderlecht, Anderlecht, Schalke, Schalke, Lyon.
And while these teams represent a genuine challenge, and each has players that can hurt United on their day (don’t worry Memphis is cup-tied) these five fixtures surely make more appealing reading than United’s next five league ties.
Of course, United are used to fighting on multiple fronts and have a big squad, so there is an argument this should continue to the very last whistle of the season, and it’s not lost on anyone how ‘un-United’ the very thought is, but with legs heavy, and injuries mounting, it might be time for Mr Mourinho to play the percentages.
The Portuguese has been vocal all season about his feelings towards English football’s schedule writers, most recently ahead of last month’s twelve noon start at the Riverside; at the behest of BT Sport. The game came just 60-odd hours after United left the field against Rostov in the Europa League.
The manager’s belief is that the Premier League has actively disadvantaged domestic sides in continental competitions with its scheduling. And whether you agree with this or not, there’s no denying that this season has been a gruelling one for United’s squad – going deep into all competitions and playing more games than any other team in England. Injuries and suspensions have piled up and in the league, and United’s performances have been lethargic.
The risk now is that this lethargy spills over into the Europa League, and that the fuel the players do have left in the tank is spent chasing a lost cause on the home front.
While United have hardly sparkled in Europe this year, they have at least managed to get over the line. Something which, as evidenced by Saturday’s game, they’ve too often failed to do in the league.
With Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera returning from suspension and Paul Pogba not far from fitness again, United will have arguably their three best players returning in the next couple of fixtures – all in time to face Anderlecht on April 13th.
While the prospect of prioritising the Europa League would mean making sure the team’s most talented players were as fresh as possible come Thursdays, it doesn’t have to mean turning up with nine in the Premier League and asking the opposition to lend a couple of bodies to get the game on. There are still players with points to prove looking for minutes – Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini, Wayne Rooney – and youngsters like Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensa who would benefit immeasurably from consistent top flight minutes. At their best it’s not impossible for these players to play a key role in hauling United into fourth too.
Of course, prioritising a knockout competition comes at a risk – there’s always the cautionary tale of our dear friends up the M62 doing the exact same thing last season with disastrous effects. But this United team is better than that Liverpool team, and there’s no opposition this year quite so obsessed with Europe’s second tier competition as last season’s winners Sevilla.
So, as much as back in August this sentiment might have seemed unthinkable, it might just be time to haul all of the eggs into the Europa League basket. And just in time for Easter too!