Manchester United are on course for a chaotic climax to this campaign. Having sealed the EFL Cup with victory over Southampton, Jose Mourinho’s side are left with barely a free day for the rest of the season. A dislodged Manchester derby must now be rearranged, the Europa League matches continue to come thick and fast, and this Monday they enter the quarter-final of the FA Cup with an unenviable trip to Stamford Bridge.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has scored nine more league goals than any other Manchester United player, is in line for a three match domestic ban after his unsavoury catalogue of incidents with Tyrone Mings at the weekend. Of all the players for Mourinho to lose at this stage of the season, Ibrahimovic was the worst. Still available for the Europa League, the towering Swedish striker may benefit from an enforced rest, however. That is one selection dilemma pre-decided for Mourinho ahead of the coming fixtures.
Chris Smalling and Ander Herrera are expected to return to the team for the trip to FC Rostov on Thursday night having been rested last time out. Mourinho, though, is in a squad-balancing predicament: Rostov are no pushovers, while the lack of rest before Chelsea in the FA Cup – not to mention the long flight back from southern Russia – makes selection an issue. Wayne Rooney, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Luke Shaw were not included in the squad for the Europa League outing, possibly increasing their chances of a start on Monday.
Although the rivalry, revenge, and Mourinho’s unpleasant exit from Stamford Bridge add spice to the FA Cup encounter, it is the Europa League that should take priority. European success takes precedence over the chance of an FA Cup semi-final, particularly considering the high likelihood of two more challenging matches. Even a full strength United side may only force a draw at Stamford Bridge, which would only further congest an already ugly looking fixture list.
The Europa League is an insurance policy for Manchester United this season. Their squad can compete for the top four and the secondary European competition simultaneously, but, should things go badly wrong domestically, Champions League qualification is still possible. They are the clear favourites to lift the Europa League as it stands, too.
Ultimately, winning the FA Cup and EFL Cup will seem fairly irrelevant if they do not qualify for the Champions League. Champions League qualification is, rightly or wrongly, the be all and end all for the top six Premier League clubs this season unless they are going to win the trophy itself.
Rotation will be necessary for Mourinho at times in the next few weeks, but it should be the FA Cup, not the Europa League, that he weakens his team for. Losing to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Monday may dent Mourinho’s ego, yet it makes little impact on their season. Failure to progress past Rostov, however, would be an epic upset and leave the verdict of their season riding on their remaining Premier League matches.