Mourinho sacrifices top-four as Europa League final beckons
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.
That Mourinho could pick up two trophies in what has been an otherwise frustrating season should not be overlooked, but United’s league form has simply not been up to scratch. The long unbeaten run was bookended by two performances that perfectly summarise where it has all gone wrong. The first, a now infamous 0-0 draw at home to Burnley where United managed almost forty shots on goal with no return was the epitome of the team’s home form. Mourinho’s team has paid the price for failing to turn chances into goals on an alarmingly regular basis, based on an inability to kill off games in which the team is dominant. The second was a limp 2-0 defeat to the Gunners that kept up an embarrassing failure to score away at any of the Premier League’s top six. There will be a final chance to break the duck against Tottenham Hotspur, but the damage has already been done.
"The long unbeaten run was bookended by two performances that perfectly summarise where it has all gone wrong. The infamous 0-0 draw at home to Burnley and a limp 2-0 defeat to the Gunners."
The dearth of goals in big games has been reflective of Mourinho’s approach to managing them. The Reds retreated to a back six frequently at the Emirates, with similar displays at Liverpool and Manchester City fuelling criticism of the Portuguese’s negativity. Mourinho’s pragmatism has always been a key component of his coaching style, and it has paid huge dividends for him in the past. But when such a joyless approach bears no fruit then it will inevitably attract criticism, and Mourinho has taken his fair share of flack in recent days.
Yet, the apathetic performances turned in by a significant portion of his squad at the weekend were also inexcusable. 19-year-old Axel Tuanzebe was the only outfield United player to leave London with any pride intact. The young defender’s maturity in dealing with Alexis Sanchez was impressive, and his general application reflected terribly on his senior teammates as they surrendered meekly to one of the worst Arsenal sides in recent memory.
Perhaps the only other positive to take from Sunday’s debacle is that a heavily rotated line-up should mean that United heads into Thursday’s second leg feeling relatively fresh. The Reds established a slender one goal advantage in Vigo and head into the return clash as favourites to progress.
According to some United “made heavy weather” of last week’s tie, and while there were some customary missed chances, a win 1-0 victory away in a European semi-final can hardly be considered as anything other than a positive result. Spanish soil has been a results graveyard for United over the years, but Marcus Rashford’s sublime free-kick ensured the team returned to Manchester with a precious away goal. It was a match that Mourinho’s men controlled comfortably and should inspire confidence for Thursday’s return leg against a Celta side that will be forced to show significantly greater attacking purpose.
The neutral viewer will likely have been disappointed by Celta’s performance last week, as the Spanish side struggled to lay a glove on a United side which has not travelled well in Europe. Prior to the game, pundits waxed lyrical about Celta’s attacking prowess, but there was little to intimidate the Reds. Former Manchester City and Celtic striker John Guidetti was marshalled comfortably by Eric Bailly, while Iago Aspas looked very much the player he was at Liverpool.
However, Eduardo Berizzo’s men have beaten both Real Madrid and Barcelona this season, and while it may not have been evident last week, the team retains an ability to beat the very best.
The Spanish club is bidding to win its first European trophy, so perhaps the weight of the occasion took a toll on the players as Celta struggled to find fluency. Away from the Balaidos, the Celta players will be free of the pressure of a raucous home support and they arrive in Manchester with little to lose. As Swansea City demonstrated a fortnight ago, it is possible to get at United at Old Trafford, especially as games have followed a frustratingly similar pattern of goalless dominance from the Reds.
Berizzo rested many of his first choice team once again at the weekend and the club’s entire season now hinges on this fixture. It would be a surprise if the visitors turned in another timid performance against United. Celta may have failed to impress last week, but United fans should not get overly comfortable in their Old Trafford seats this evening.
Mourinho reported no fresh injury concerns ahead of this evening’s tie, although he confirmed that Ashley Young and Timothy Fosu-Mensah will miss the rest of the season. Injuries have played a significant part in the manager’s tinkering in recent weeks, and although it has been enforced such rotation is not always helpful in terms of players finding form.
Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan once again failed to impress against Arsenal, and the Frenchman in particular has suffered a poor campaign. Martial has not responded in the way his manager will have hoped despite being a target for several of Mourinho’s public dress-downs. Questions were raised over the attacker’s future at the club following the game, and Mourinho has shown little hesitation in the past for jettisoning players who will not carry out his instructions.
Last season, Martial was widely tipped as the club’s next idol, but his star has been eclipsed this year by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the continued rise of Marcus Rashford. Martial’s talent should ensure he has a place at Old Trafford, but things are rarely that simple and something has to change if he is to stay in Manchester long-term. Tonight’s semi-final is an opportunity for Martial to right some of this season’s wrongs.
Rashford will almost certainly return to the side after being given a rest against the Gunners, and his stunning free-kick has United in pole-position to book a place in Stockholm. The teenager has been everything that Martial has not in recent weeks – a willing runner, good on the ball and effective in front of goal. Zlatan’s injury piled enormous pressure on Rashford to lead in the line in the Swede’s absence and he has responded admirably. Another strike from Rashford this evening may be enough to see United through.
Elsewhere, Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini impressed in Vigo last week and should return to the fold. Pogba, in particular, had an industrious evening in Spain as he exerted the kind of dominance expected. The midfielder was denied another assist by Mkhitaryan’s poor finishing, but was probably United’s best player on the night, breaking powerfully through Celta’s midfield more than once. Pogba has an opportunity to set a platform for next season in these final few games, as well as help bring home a second trophy of the season.
Failure to progress this evening will effectively end to United’s season, a fact that will not be lost on Mourinho and his players. Sunday’s performance fell way below expectations, thus United should be keen to make amends. The post-Ferguson era has been largely disappointing, but has still been dotted with memorable moments and occasions – tonight is an opportunity to set up another one.
Referee: Ovidiu Alin Hategan (ROU)
Assistant Referees: Octavian Sovre, Sebastian Eugen Gheorghe
Additional Assistants: Radu Marian Petrescu, Sebastian Coltescu
Fourth Official: Radu Adrian Ghinguleac
United 2-1 Celta