As weeks go, Manchester United’s was certainly mixed. FA Cup defeat to Chelsea on Monday came amid the controversy of Ander Herrera’s dismissal and Antonio Conte’s accusation of Red-flavoured anti-football. The former was certainly unfortunate, the latter misleading. Then, on Thursday, José Mourinho’s side eased into the Europa League quarter-final in unspectacular fashion, albeit in the process of losing world-record signing Paul Pogba to injury. Mourinho believes a heavy schedule is catching up on the club. It could get worse before it gets better.
Victory over Rostov on Thursday night took United into the quarter-final of the Europa League for the first time since the 1980s – it is now probably the Reds’ best chance of reaching next season’s Champions League. The cost, however, was high with not only Pogba, but Daley Blind added to a lengthy injury and suspended list.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Mourinho’s challenge stems not solely from the club’s diminished resources at the business end of the season, but a brutal fixture list that could yet stretch to another 17 games in a season that has already featured 47.[/blockquote]
Mourinho’s challenge stems not solely from the club’s diminished resources at the business end of the season, but a brutal fixture list that could yet stretch to another 17 games in a season that has already featured 47. Moreover, the team faces an early Sunday kick off against Middlesbrough, less than 72 hours after the final whistle went in the Europa League. It is a scheduling nightmare that will be repeated not only on Sunday, but every weekend following a Europa League tie.
Mourinho’s side will play the two legs of the Europa League quarter-final against Anderlecht either side of a home match with champions-elect Chelsea.
“If you play at 12 o’clock, you need to eat before nine and, if you need to eat before nine, you need to wake up before that,” Mourinho complained. “If you play at five o’clock in the afternoon, of course, you can have more sleep, better sleep with more meals before the game and more nutrition. It’s difficult to understand and difficult to accept but it has to be.”
Mourinho’s team enjoyed a recovery day on Friday, before a light training session on Saturday morning in preparation for the game on Teesside. It is the kind of fixture that United must win if the club is to qualify for next season’s Champions League, not least with rivals Arsenal losing on Saturday and Manchester City facing Liverpool on Sunday.
United’s opponents are now without a league win in the past 10 matches and the club sacked manager Aitor Karanka on Friday. It signs auger well for the Reds, but Mourinho’s side must not only face down weary limbs on Teesside, but will have to do it without a clutch of injured and suspended players.
It is a challenge that is playing on Mourinho’s mind. Indeed, the Portuguese coach went on the attack this week, accusing the FA and Premier League of failing to protect English clubs. There is unlikely to be much sympathy at Premier League headquarters, or at broadcasters BT and Sky.
“They simply don’t care,” Mourinho said of the Premier League after United reached the Europa League last eight. “In other countries they try to do that little support to the teams in Europe. But here it is difficult. We go Sunday at 12 o’clock. Why? Why us? So it’s going to be even more difficult for us.
“We should be the last team to play in the weekend, it is as simple as that. We should play Monday. Or we should play the last match on Sunday. Not 12 o’clock. At least let us sleep a little bit on Sunday, right?”
In contrast, supporters will be sympathetic to Mourinho’s cause, albeit with the caveat that the Reds now lie seventh in the Premier League – not the outcome promised when the Portuguese took the United job last summer.
History is at least on United’s side. Sunday’s visitors are without defeat in the past 12 matches against Boro, although the Teessiders did progress on penalties in a League Cup clash in October 2015. United has also scored in each of the least 14 away league games against Middlesbrough. It is the club’s longest scoring streak against any opponent.
Mourinho has taken a more pessimistic view, however, claiming that his side “will probably lose” given the fatigue that plagues United. Neither the Reds nor the manager can truly afford more points dropped this weekend.
Karanka’s dismissal this week reflects Middlesbrough’s winless streak in the Premier League, one that now stretches to 10 games. The Teesside club is five points shy of safety, with the Spanish manager paying a price for his side’s inability to score despite a relatively secure defence. Boro has found the net just 19 times in the league, reflecting an inefficiency in chance conversion that is the worst in the division. United, incidentally, is in 17th place when it comes to that metric.
Boro’s four wins in the league all season is a poor return given some of the attacking talent available, including former City striker Alvaro Negredo, England international Stuart Downing and Frenchman Rudy Gestede.
Mourinho is naturally sympathetic with his former Real Madrid colleague, with the Portuguese highlighting Karanka’s achievements over three and a half years at the Teesside club.
“He saved the team,” said the United boss. “He takes the team to Wembley for the play-off final, then, the next year, he gets direct promotion and now he goes home. I’m sad, but that’s football now and we have to adapt.”
Karanka’s assistant-manager Steve Agnew has been placed in temporary charge of the first-team after the Spaniard’s departure. He has 11 games to save the club from yet another relegation.
Pogba’s early withdrawal during Thursday’s win against Rostov will leave the Frenchman on the sidelines for three weeks according to his manager, while Blind’s head injury also rules out the Dutchman. Wayne Rooney will miss at least one more match with a knee problem, Bastian Schweinsteiger is unavailable, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera are suspended. In better news Anthony Martial could make the squad after returning to training on Wednesday. Marcos Rojo is likely to be rested with the Argentinian hitting a banana-sized wall in the game against Rostov.
Boro subs from: Guzan, Fischer, Leadbitter, Espinosa, Stuani, Gestede, Forshaw, Guediora
United subs from: Romero, Shaw, Rojo, Jones, Fosu-Mensah, Lingard, Young, Martial
Pogba’s injury put a dampener on United’s Europa League victory, although the Frenchman is long overdue a rest. The 23-year-old has played more minutes than any United player this season, with Mourinho determining that fatigue played a significant part in the midfielder’s injury.
“My teams’ injury records are very, very good,” said Mourinho. “It’s very difficult for my players to get injuries and obviously Pogba’s injury was due to an accumulation of fatigue.
“He felt something in the first half and, in the second half, he immediately felt like he couldn’t carry on. Even a physical monster like him couldn’t carry on.
“He was one of the players who never had a rest. He played every game. Even at Blackburn, he was on the bench and he played half-an-hour. I think the Monday night game with 10 men also paid a price. So Paul is paying the price.”
The early kick-off at the Riverside is likely to factor in the manager’s thinking, with squad players Ashley Young, Matteo Darmian, Luke Shaw and Marouane Fellaini all potentially featuring in the north east.
The manager is reluctant to make wholesale changes, however, claiming that he “cannot sacrifice anything,” with United still in the hunt for Champions League qualification via the league.
The hosts are without defenders George Friend, Calum Chambers and Daniel Ayala, while striker Patrick Bamford, is a doubt with illness. Bernardo Espinosa and Rudy Gestede have recovered from their injuries and are expected to be in the matchday squad.
Referee: Jonathan Moss
Assistants: S Bennett, E Smart
Fourth official: R Madley
Middlesbrough 1-1 United