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.
At the season’s start the suggestion that José Mourinho would start with both Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan would have been summarily dismissed. The notion that the pair could be picked in the same team has seemed fanciful for much of the campaign. After all, Mata and Mourinho shared a chequered history together at Chelsea, while Mkhitaryan was frozen out of the first team picture altogether for a large chunk of the season. Yet, the duo could be the club’s most important combination as United enter the business end of the season.
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.
There are few greater crimes in football than Louis van Gaal’s decision to sideline Ander Herrera for much of his two-year reign. It had little to with the Spaniard’s ability. The midfield terrier has plenty of talent. Instead, Herrera’s exclusion appeared to be a clash of ideologies. Van Gaal’s possession obsession versus Herrera’s aggression; the Dutchman’s patience against a streak of recklessness. No longer. Herrera is important again, a man fit for José Mourinho’s regime. One fully understood by his manager, and the supporters.
The pattern is familiar: a high profile game, a hotly debated decision, pundits grasping loosely for facts in an opinionated world, and irate supporters venting frustration across social media. It was no different on Monday night, as referee Michael Oliver booked Ander Herrera twice inside 35 minutes at Stamford Bridge, in one moment ruining both the spectacle and Manchester United’s chances of retaining the FA Cup. To many United supporters Oliver’s performance was an aberration; to most others, a delight.
Another week, another frustrating draw. In what is quickly becoming the standard result for José Mourinho’s side, Manchester United braved a 3,750 mile round trip to Rostov to return with yet another stalemate. It was, at least, a result that should be enough to see the Reds through to the Europa League quarter-final. An FA Cup tie at Chelsea on Monday represents another challenge again.
As the world’s most expensive footballer took a wild swing-and-miss in the dying embers of Manchester United’s dismal draw with AFC Bournemouth last weekend the sound of knives being sharpened was almost audible. The reaction to that pivotal miscue was a perfect snapshot of the hyperbolic culture that has ingrained itself in modern football. There is no better example of the phenomenon than Paul Pogba.
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.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic will miss three Manchester United games after taking pointed retribution against Tyrone Mings at the weekend. The Swede’s swinging elbow was missed by referee Kevin Friend, but an FA panel found inevitable guilt in the 35-year-old’s violence. Yet, while the striker’s 26 goals in all competitions have been vital to United’s cause this season, there may be greater benefit from an enforced leave of absence.
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.