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.
There were few who failed to notice José Mourinho’s notably subdued demeanour as his players celebrated their first trophy of the season. The Manchester United manager stood alone on the Wembley turf, displaying almost no emotion. Perhaps his team’s performance in last Sunday’s EFL Cup Final against Southampton was not to his liking; maybe he really is as miserable as some claim, or perhaps he had the look of a man who knows his job is only just beginning.
Manchester United return to Wembley with sights set on a first major trophy under José Mourinho, and a first League Cup victory since 2010. Now under the guise of the EFL Cup, the Reds have enjoyed a relatively straightforward run to the final, and face Claude Puel’s Southampton, who impressively dispatched Liverpool in the semi-final. Mourinho and his players will be made to fight for their first silverware of the season.
Manchester United might feel much of the hard work has been done in this run of cup games. José Mourinho’s side arrives in France following an unconvincing 2-1 FA Cup victory over Blackburn Rovers at the weekend, but Wednesday’s second leg at Saint-Etienne offers the chance to rest key players heading into Sunday’s EFL Cup final.