The siege mentality was in full swing this past week at Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho has not left anyone guessing about what he thinks of the football authorities, home and abroad, and their failure to fit within is expectations.
In Europe, the manager was irked by UEFA’s indifference to the state of the pitch on which Manchester United played Russian side FC Rostov in the first leg of the last 16 Europa league match. The heat was quickly turned onto the FA and the Premier League for giving United a midday kick off on the Sunday following the second leg of the same tie.
Whilst Jose is keeping within nature by taking on the authority, his squad has been dealt a severe test of endurance by the 3 game week schedule they’ve been had to cope with. Until last week Manchester United were still involved in all competitions. The club has already played 47 games this season. In context, that is 16 more than their opponents last Sunday, Middlesbrough. Incredibly, United could yet still play 17 games before now and the end of the season!
Indeed, such is the fixture crisis about United’s season run-in that premier league games are being arranged on Thursday! The Manchester derby will take place on such a day at the end of April but the club remains with at least one league match unscheduled. The Premier League have categorically dismissed any suggestions that the club will be allowed to play games beyond the official end of the domestic season, meaning that United will have to make do with the two months available after the International break.
For Mourinho, his otherwise strong squad has been tested by a plethora of injuries and suspensions, calling for a clever utilization of the club’s human resource. There’s only so many players you can rest through and since the EFL Cup Final, United have looked far short of the steam they had built at the start of winter.
They struggled at home with Bournemouth and only just got past FC Rostov in the Europa league when the gulf in class between the sides should have made for a more comfortable aggregate scoreline. In the same period, the club lost its grip of the FA Cup and whilst defeat at Stamford Bridge was understandable in the circumstances, the performance on Sunday against managerless Boro was one of a side on its last legs.
Thankfully, it was only Boro, but Manchester United looked like they desperately needed the international break. The two week break affords a couple of older heads to recover and get back into shape whilst for others, time with their National teams is a welcome break from the schedule and routine three games a week can do.
Whilst it should be expected that the modern footballer should be able to play thrice a week without complaint, in England the debate is somewhat punctuated with caveats. Such is the gruelling nature of England’s top flight that it has become tradition among the top sides to treat every other domestic competition as a distraction. Had it been Manchester United with a 10 point league at the summit of the league, elimination from the FA Cup, or from the Europa League takes on minute significance. Whisper it, but in England, only the league really matters! Indeed, it now matters so much that even second place without a tangible trophy to show for it is widely regarded as having a successful season.
As it were, Jose Mourinho found himself in a position where he cannot quite pick and choose trophies. United, by virtue of their summer spending have to make the Champions League. That means that the Europa League has had to be treated with the respect it can sometimes demand. In addition, the thirst for trophies of any kind at the club currently meant that he couldn’t simply turn his back on the EFL Cup. Once United got the luck of the draw in the semi-final, the onus was on the club to go on and win it, if only because you can’t be guaranteed of winning anything these days. The manager rightly pointed out that ‘there are many sharks’ in England baying for trophy success. Indeed, one has to simply glance at the line-up for the FA Cup semi-finals to get the point herein.
In all, the club has been left with a fixture list that has attested to the depth in quantity if not quality at the club. With a couple months left to close out the season, the club remains in pole position to reach the minimum target for the season.
Asked whether he would prioritize European competition or the domestic fight for a top four place, the manager pointed to the bonus success in Europe would bring for the club. Not since the late 1980s have United been at the quarter final stage of the competition that was formerly the UEFA Cup. More importantly is that success in the competition would enter United into another final at the start of next season with a chance of lifting another trophy, the UEFA Super Cup against whomever wins the Champions League. All that sounds better than merely walking away from a season in 4th place.
Fans will therefore hope that the players and manager will take one deep breath during this break to gather all the energy reserves they have left and mount what should be a thrilling end to the season. United will have most of their squad problems regarding injuries, and suspensions over when the football resumes on April Fool’s Day. The hope is that more than just a couple of players come fresh enough to continue what has been a marathon of a season.
Domestically, United could yet finish the season as high as second in the league but all the sides engaged in a similar battle with them do not have any European commitments. In England, that is a major handicap, but not one that cannot be overcome if you have built a head of steam with the finish line in sight.