It may have taken the best part of eight months, but at long last José Mourinho’s Manchester United finally lived up the manager’s lofty billing. On Sunday, facing a side that once threatened to win the Premier League title with months to spare, Mourinho offered his most impressive performance of his short tenure in Manchester. There was little expectation of victory, but United pulled off an unlikely win. Thursday’s Europa League fixture with Anderlecht is a different proposition again.
Which is the greater priority: finishing inside the Premier League’s top four or winning the Europa League? With each comes Champions League qualification, although only victory in Europe’s second tier competition brings with it silverware. Certainly, the regularly dropped points in the Premier League this season has placed greater emphasis on European competition. The latest side in United’s path – Belgian league leaders Anderlecht.
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.
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.
Manchester United might feel much of the hard work has been done in this run of cup games. José Mourinho’s side arrives in France following an unconvincing 2-1 FA Cup victory over Blackburn Rovers at the weekend, but Wednesday’s second leg at Saint-Etienne offers the chance to rest key players heading into Sunday’s EFL Cup final.
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?