Manchester United playing in the Europa League is an evident frustration for Jose Mourinho.
The former Chelsea manager has previously been vocal about his distaste for the competition, although his own innate competitiveness means he certainly will be aiming to lift the secondary European trophy this season.
Mourinho might not feel that Manchester United belong in the slug of Thursday night football, but that is where they are with good reason. And this season there is yet to be proof that they belong in the Champions League, either.
With only one win from five in the Premier League, Mourinho’s side are struggling severely domestically. Admittedly, that could look a little more positive if they had claimed victory as they should have done against Stoke, as a superhuman goalkeeping performance from Lee Grant restricted the Red Devils to just one goal.
Recent disappointments aside, elimination from Europa League football would harm the team psychologically. Whether it is considered a tournament to be fussed about or not, a team of Manchester United’s worth and stature will receive endless criticism if the final result of their Europa adventure ends in anything other than silverware. Those critics will be easier to brush aside if league results are closer to what is expected at Old Trafford, instead the pressure is now at a greater level in every single game for Manchester United.
Sitting five points away from their bitter table-topping rivals, Manchester City, greater attention will be paid to their Thursday night efforts. Two enormously underwhelming performances against Feyenoord and Zorya Luhansk mean that anything other than three points against Fenerbahce will leave the Red Devils in a perilous position in Group A. Whether progress matters to Mourinho or not, failure to even progress from the group stage would be significant in his early months at the club.
Yet should Manchester United find themselves in the knockout phases of the competition, it will raise a number of questions for Mourinho, and we will quickly have a strong indication of his priorities for his first season.
Competitive instinct can only carry a team so far. A time will come when the club and Mourinho need to choose what to invest most heavily in. If silverware is the main requisite for success and the league title is out of reach, will we see a shifting of Mourinho’s resources towards Thursday nights? The more probable outcome, however, is that an intense league season – whether battling for the top four or the title – will quickly see Mourinho return to his status quo and reject the importance of the Europa League.
The squad depth is there for Manchester United to plod through the Europa group stages without burning out their first choice starters for Premier League football, but it will ask questions of Mourinho’s ability to rotate his squad that he has previously failed to answer.
Europa League football does not pander to Mourinho’s ego, nor does it return Manchester United to the pinnacle of Europe, but it could be a welcome chance at silverware, not to mention Champions League qualification for next season should their Premier League campaign continue to charge towards the depths of the Van Gaal and Moyes regimes.