Manchester United takes on Ajax almost six years to the day since the Reds last European final – few could have predicted that the face of the club would have changed so dramatically in the intervening time. The Reds’ 3-1 “hiding”- as Sir Alex Ferguson put it – at the hands of Barcelona in 2011 marked the natural end of a successful period in the team’s history. Could another one begin in Stockholm on Wednesday night?
Sunday’s result against Arsenal was the game in which José Mourinho finally delivered on his threat to forsake Manchester United’s top-four hopes in search of a Europa League triumph. The Reds suffered a torrid afternoon at the Emirates, marking the end of a 25 game Premier League unbeaten run, one which must rank among the most uninspiring in football history. During the run United slipped from six points off the league leaders to nineteen. It is a damning statistic, yet the Reds are is still in the hunt for a second piece of silverware as the club welcomes Celta Vigo to Old Trafford with a place in the Europa League final at stake.
The Europa League has provided United fans with something resembling a welcome break from the disappointment of the Premier League campaign. After the now typical draw against Swansea City last weekend, attention turned to continental conquests, and the first European semi-final involving Manchester United in six seasons. Celta Vigo stands between José Mourinho’s side and the Europa League final, but for the moment the focus comes back to the Premier League and Sunday’s fixture against Arsenal.
It is a little under three years since Swansea City arrived at Old Trafford and embarrassed Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United side in the Dutchman’s first competitive fixture in charge . It wouldn’t be the last time the Dutchman was humiliated while at United, but it is a result that remains lodged in the memory, as if to underline the mediocrity that has engulfed the club since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. It is almost 12 months since the Iron Tulip’s tenure at United came to end, and there are plenty of reasons to believe progress is being made. Signs that it hasn’t come fast enough as well.
It may have taken the best part of eight months, but at long last José Mourinho’s Manchester United finally lived up the manager’s lofty billing. On Sunday, facing a side that once threatened to win the Premier League title with months to spare, Mourinho offered his most impressive performance of his short tenure in Manchester. There was little expectation of victory, but United pulled off an unlikely win. Thursday’s Europa League fixture with Anderlecht is a different proposition again.
The phrase Manchester United “left to rue missed chances” has found its way into far too many match reports this season, and Thursday’s Europa League draw with Anderlecht was yet another installment in a long line of wasteful performances. The good news for José Mourinho is that his side has an opportunity to quickly make amends; the bad news is that it involves the visit to Old Trafford of table-topping Chelsea.
Which is the greater priority: finishing inside the Premier League’s top four or winning the Europa League? With each comes Champions League qualification, although only victory in Europe’s second tier competition brings with it silverware. Certainly, the regularly dropped points in the Premier League this season has placed greater emphasis on European competition. The latest side in United’s path – Belgian league leaders Anderlecht.
If there was ever evidence that statistics can be deceiving then Manchester United’s unbeaten league run is the go-to example. The run now stretches to 19 games undefeated, but with little demonstrable progress to show for it. The Reds make the trip to Sunderland desperate to ensure that David Moyes is not the man to break the lossless streak.
The dust has barely settled on Manchester United’s frustrating FA Cup exit at Chelsea, but José Mourinho’s men must now rouse themselves for the arrival of FC Rostov. The Reds rarely fare well at Stamford Bridge, and Monday’s defeat was just another in a long line of disappointing visits. N’Golo Kante’s second-half strike ended United’s hopes of retaining the FA Cup, but the Europa League represents another opportunity for silverware – not to mention a route back to the continent’s top table.
What once was Manchester United’s fourth priority this season is now rapidly climbing in importance. The Europa League may be the tournament of losers and failures, but victory in the final on 24 May in Stockholm comes with the prize of Champions League football next season. The Reds may need it, especially after José Mourinho’s side dropped yet more points at home last weekend. Fourth place or better is now out of United’s hands.