Four points – the difference between Manchester United’s elimination from this season’s Europa League and the humiliation of having to play in Europe’s second tier competition past the New Year. José Mourinho’s side could collect three of the four points required to qualify from Group A on Thursday night with Feyenoord visiting Old Trafford. The real question, of course, is whether any of the players are really up for it?
As far as international breaks go the series of games this week could not have been timed any worse for Manchester United. Fresh from victory against struggling Swansea City, the Reds desperately need a run of positive results to build momentum in a stop-start season. Instead, José Mourinho’s players return from activity on three continents ahead of a must-win fixture against one of the club’s oldest enemies.
No one said it would be easy. But no one said it’d be this hard. As José Mourinho’s side fumbled its way through another disappointing night in Europe, the few remaining onlookers who thought everything would be back to normal this time around suffered a rude awakening. There is, apparently, no quick fix to the problems facing Manchester United, the self-proclaimed “biggest club in the world.”
“The stadium was full of real support and it looks like the love people have for this club is bigger than bad results. We must give something back.” José Mourinho’s words were part of what seemed liked a humble apology in the wake of last weekend’s thrashing by Chelsea. In the end, his side secured a much-needed win over rivals Manchester City in the League Cup. Old Trafford offered its unwavering support, and Mourinho humbly bowed to supporters in seeking forgiveness.
Watching Manchester United in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era is very much like Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray film of the 1990s in which the comedian is stuck in a loop, broken not even by death. There is a very definite cycle in the years since the Scot’s retirement, teetering between extreme optimism and crushing disappointment. It doesn’t seem like the trend will be broken any time soon.
Fickleness and sentiment: two words tossed around aplenty in football. “Fans are fickle” is a favourite used by onlookers as a bizarre crutch to justify supporters’ sudden change of heart. Equally, pundits note that “there is no room for sentiment” in football. It’s an overused term that explains away the poor treatment of a formerly loved player or, perhaps, manager. José Mourinho might take note of both clichés on Sunday.
No preview of a fixture against Fenerbahçe is complete without dutiful reference to a brace of pivotal games in Manchester United’s recent history. First, the Turkish side secured a famous victory at Old Trafford in October 1996, the first home loss by United in European competition, some 40 years after the Reds first took to continental football. Then, and certainly more memorable, came that début in 2004, when teenage sensation Wayne Rooney scored at hat-trick at Old Trafford in United’s 6-2 victory.
As far as club fixtures go there are only a handful in world football that lie firmly in the ‘unmissable’ category. El Clasico certainly, which resembles a soap opera given the drama of the players involved. The Auld Firm produces pure hatred between the two Glasgow sides, as does the Derby Della Capitale between Roma and Lazio. The Manchester derby is fast becoming the Hollywood blockbuster fixture of which Sky Sports and Twitter’s football hipsters dream. Yet, Liverpool against Manchester United has something just a little different.
The headlines, save for Sam Allardyce’s indiscretions, have been about Manchester United and England captain Wayne Rooney for a week or more. It probably couldn’t be any other way. Yet, lost amid José Mourinho’s decision to ditch a player who once enjoyed the “special privileges” at Old Trafford, has been United’s return to form, of sorts. Three defeats in succession derailed what early season momentum Mourinho’s side had built up. Victories over Leicester City and Zorya Luhansk in the past week have restored a more natural order to proceedings. Both without Rooney.
Could it be the day that José Mourinho finally makes the big selection decision on everybody’s mind? The one involving captain Wayne Rooney and the bench. After all, Rooney’s performances this season, for the last three, have suggested a once great player on the wane. That burst of speed, surety of touch, and goalscoring prowess: all gone. His value to the team: vastly diminished.