It’s the beginning of yet another pivotal period at Manchester United. As the club continues to compete on all fronts, it was inevitable that the tests would increase for José Mourinho and his players. Four games across three competitions, including a cup final, all crammed into an intimidating 10 day package will certainly do that. Mourinho has challenged players to prove they are good enough to be at the club, and he will likely have drawn conclusions on who fits that criteria when the final whistle blows at Wembley in just over a week. First, however, the Europa League returns with the visit of French side Saint-Etienne.
Three cup competitions, four games, 10 days. Manchester United’s Premier League campaign is on hold until March, with José Mourinho’s team focusing on the Europa League last-32, FA Cup fifth round, and the EFL Cup final for the rest of February. It promises to be a fascinating series of games that may culminate in Mourinho’s first silverware as United manager. First, however, is a tie with AS Saint-Étienne, the one-time grandee of French football, now fallen on leaner times.
The last time Manchester United faced Saint-Etienne the Red Army had a penchant for smashing up European cities and the Cup Winners Cup was still a thing. The glory days, the 1970s. Time has moved on and although Reds will behave far better at Old Trafford on Thursday and in France next week, the club is still participating in second rate European tournaments. Plus ça change
Manchester United returns to Europa League action this week and faces one of France’s most important clubs, Saint-Etienne. The Reds entertain Les Verts at Old Trafford in the first leg this Thursday before heading to the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard for the return match next week. Rant had a grand tête-à-tête with French Football Weekly’s Jeremy Smith to get the lowdown on the team from the Rhône-Alpes.
When Watford’s favourite son, the late Graham Taylor, brought his team to Old Trafford for a League Cup Third Round tie in 1978 the Hornets left the Rainy City with a 2-1 victory. The goals, both from Luther Blissett, handed Watford the club’s only win on the red side of Manchester. Back in September, the contemporary version also beat United, this time at Vicarage Road. The calamitous 3-1 defeat for the Reds concluded a series of three reverses on the bounce for José Mourinho’s outfit. Neither United nor the Portuguese manager can accept a similar outcome as Watford visits Old Trafford on Saturday.
The transfer rumour machine that surrounds Manchester United can be a frustrating affair. More often than not gossip claiming the imminent arrival at Old Trafford of big names fails to materialised into anything concrete. Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement the fourth estate has confidently predicted the acquisition of Thiago Alcântara, Cesc Fàbregas, Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Thomas Müller and, everyone’s favourite, Nicolás Gaitán. None have ended up gracing the Old Trafford turf. Is Antione Griezmann the latest in a long line, or another record-breaking buy in the making?
Let’s face it, the Glazer family, esteemed owners of Manchester United, aren’t exactly the most popular lot amongst the fanbase. Their presence inspires a range of emotions from ambivalence to outright hatred. Yet, like it or not, the family doesn’t look like it’ll sell the club anytime soon. For the moment there’s no urgency to do so. The club is valued at over $3 billion and hoovers up money like a well-oiled machine, and even though it is public, the family controls the majority shareholding.
Victory over Leicester City. That makes United the defacto champions, right? The Reds were back to winning ways with a comfortable win at the King Power Stadium, but it came just days after another disappointing home draw, this time against Hull City.
What is it with the Premier League this season. It is as if, Chelsea aside, nobody really wants to confirm a place in next season’s Champions League, let alone challenge for the title. Manchester United’s victory over last season’s champions Leicester City on Sunday means that there are now just five points between Tottenham Hotspur in second and the Reds in sixth. The only consistency is, apparently, inconsistency.
It looked oh-so-promising for a couple of months, but Manchester United’s resurgence under José Mourinho has stalled. The Reds have taken just six points from 12 in the Premier League since the turn of the year, compared to a run of five consecutive victories to end 2016. United’s winning run was always going to end, but it is the performance dip and inability to capitalise on opponents dropping points that is causing most concern. Mourinho’s men are under intense pressure to buck this trend on Sunday at Leicester City.