It is written (somewhere) that ”Unto whom much was given, a lot shall be expected in return.” Or something along that line. You get the drill.
Ahead of the penultimate month of the season, we are at that point when the chicken get to come home for the roost. A sober reflection of what the season has been and whether there is any hope for salvation in the months ahead.
For Jose Mourinho and Manchester United 2016/17 was about restoring the club to its prestige on the turf by getting the club competitive in the league and back into Europe’s premier club competition, the UEFA Champions League.
Even at this stage of the season, a very good lawyer could successfully argue that Manchester United have been ”competitive in the league” this season. That they are firmly part of a top six that has pulled away from the rest of the league is one way of going about the argument but perhaps it is best served by the fact that United have become incredibly difficult to beat this term.
At three defeats suffered in the league all season, and on an 18 match unbeaten run, the statisticians often have to remind themselves that United are not visible in Chelsea’s side mirror as far as the title race is concerned. Indeed, that subject was put to rest at the half-way stage when it became apparent that the club was desperately short of a ruthless streak infront of goal. 10 draws, most of which should have been an easy three points based on performance alone.
We are where we are though and the reward for improvement this season has been plenty left to fight for ahead of the final two months of the season. Few clubs have as much to look forward to. The caveat however is that there is a steep price to be met in order to finish the campaign on the high note fans anticipate.
Nine games await the Reds in April with each having a significant bearing on how the club’s season finale shapes up. The club have two routes back into the Champions League next term; via the league and by winning UEFA’s second tier competition. At this stage, both routes remain a possibility and the numbers within United’s squad suggest that the club can thrive but as it were in the FA Cup quarter-final at Chelsea, injuries and suspensions threaten to hamper that twin bid.
For Saturday’s (rare) three o’clock kickoff against West Brom, United are without five of their regular starters. Whilst it’s not necessarily a crisis of human resource, the absentees fit the list of vital cogs in the machine. Indeed, it has to be recalled that despite the strength in depth available to Jose Mourinho, he has relied on a few ”ever-presents” in his team selection to restore a balance to the squad that has previously been lost on the team. With the manager having already pencilled in who to ship out come the summer, perhaps it’s a great time for one or two on the fringes to change his mind. The games will certainly be enough for everyone to be afforded a shot at keeping the ship sailing beyond the month.
Either way, April is when the club drives home the advantages it has retained all season long. The club should be able to negotiate a European quarter-final against Anderlecht whilst three premier league games against West Brom, Everton and Sunderland are an opportunity to get into the top four before the run of difficult games at the end of the month. The work put in to get the club in this position earlier in the season risks being wasted away if the application is lacklustre in the next month.
More importantly, the club risks forcing some folk like me to slit a wrist or two if a congested fixture list is going to mean an avalanche of depression. Regardless the ramifications, winter April is coming. It will probably be here already by the time you get to read this!