Manchester United are left in a tricky spot. Elimination from the FA Cup, a challenging 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Europa League clash with FC Rostov and their continuation in sixth in the Premier League leave their season firmly in the balance.
Champions League qualification is the ultimate goal – as it was for all six of the Premier League’s top clubs – but that is far from certain. Jose Mourinho is relying on the perils of knockout football or a late burst of form to snatch the fourth qualification spot in the league.
But now the Europa League remains the most realistic goal for United this season. As comfortable favourites for the competition, and with a supposedly favourable draw in the shape of Rostov, the Red Devils are meant to be waltzing their way through the competition. Oddly, this seems a more secure route to Champions League football in 2017/18 than finishing in the top four. Competing with Liverpool and Arsenal for fourth spot is a path laced with jeopardy and with it ultimately relying on slip ups from their rivals.
Mourinho has seldom been in a position like this during his career. This season was not meant to have gone like this, either. They are – rather than competing for the title – stressing over a top four finish. It is the most un-Mourinho of dilemmas and it will be a great irritant for him. He is a serial winner and critic of the Europa League, but he is now left dependent on the secondary European competition.
Rather than planning for the latter stages of the Champions League and figuring a way to win the title, Mourinho is firmly in the second tier both domestically and in Europe. Manchester United are desperate to swiftly return to the pinnacle in both realms, but it is not going as smoothly as any would have expected. To have appointed Mourinho and signed the players they did last summer, top four was meant to be a given.
The path to Europa League success is not a simple one, however. Although they are obvious favourites, there are plenty of teams well equipped to lift the trophy themselves. One of Lyon or Roma will be in the next round as will one of Schalke or Borussia Monchengladbach. The fact those four were drawn against one another is to the benefit of United, but they will likely still have to beat at least one of them to lift the trophy.
Other teams pose a threat, too. FC Copenhagen, Ajax, Celta Vigo and Besiktas all have the potential to upset even this star-studded Manchester United squad. Being favourites, as Mourinho knows all too well, does not equate to guaranteed success. Complacency may be their biggest challenge in the Europe this season, but it does affect their approach in the league. Take the Europa League lightly at your peril, ask Spurs, Everton or Southampton.
With their position in the league likely to be uncertain until the last couple of matches this season, the Europa League must take priority. Failure to qualify for the Champions League through whatever means will leave Mourinho under severe pressure this summer. European humiliation would see to that.