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.
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.
Perhaps the most shocking data point from Manchester United’s last three Premier League home games is the more than 70 shots taken for just two goals scored. United 1-1 Stoke City, United 0-0 Burnley and United 1-1 Arsenal all carried a good deal of frustration. The six points lost in draws where United should have won might just be critical by May and could have taken José Mourinho’s side to just three points behind leaders Chelsea. It wasn’t so and for the most part the blames lies with the Reds’ inability to turn chances into goals. Not so on Thursday, with United vibrant in attack and efficient in scoring four against Feyenoord. The question is whether United can sustain the level of performance when the serious business of domestic football resumes this weekend?
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?
There were times during Louis van Gaal’s regime at Manchester United when the Dutchman’s team couldn’t record 37 shots in a month, let alone a game. Fast forward a few months and the current vintage has few problem creating chances; it’s the finishing that is letting the team down. Indeed, it seems churlish to complain about United’s draw with Burnley at the weekend despite all those failed efforts on goal. After all, José Mourinho’s team actually produced a fine attacking display, save for the lack of chances taken.
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.
It is, for the most part, a draw indistinguishable from the early stages of the Champions League. Manchester United’s Europa League group draw offers no glamour ties, but then with the seeding system, there rarely are in the main competition either. José Mourinho’s team is set for trips to Netherlands, Turkey and Ukraine, in a group that United should walk. But then, with Premier League revival the clear priority this season, it is also a competition in which nobody at Old Trafford is truly interested.
In a season of frustrating mediocrity Louis van Gaal has few chances left to achieve redemption. Despite the Dutchman’s, frankly, ludicrous assertion that his “philosophy” is working, Van Gaal’s time at Old Trafford has been little short of a catastrophe. With the club some 13 points shy of the Premier League summit, facing a tough FA Cup replay at West Ham United, and starting Thursday night’s Europa League game two goals down to Liverpool, it is likely Van Gaal will leave Old Trafford having presided over two barren years.
Much has been made over the possible “Liverpoolisation” of Manchester United. United is mounting a desperate challenge to qualify for the Champions League, but with some irony faces elimination from the seemingly winnable Europa League at the hands of the old enemy, Liverpool.