It may only be the cruellest month in TS Eliot’s odd world view. But this season April is undoubtedly going to be Manchester United’s busiest.
Nine fixtures over the next four weeks, a hectic schedule of twice a week engagement, critical matches arriving one on top of the other like tumbling dominoes. That hissing noise emanating from the Carrington training ground is the steam coming out of Jose Mourinho’s ears.
But, for all his grouching, for all his insinuations of ABU conspiracy on the part of the fixture computer, for all his insistence that everyone else has it easier, the manager surely wouldn’t want it any other way. Congestion at this time of the season is a by-product of success. United have so many vital games in quick succession because they are still in contention.
Sure, it may be easier for Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester City in the league because they don’t have any European commitments (though four of them make up the least surprising, least inspiring, least unexpected FA Cup semi-final roster anyone can remember). Mourinho, though, can’t complain: it is now that the most expensively accumulated squad in history should come into its own. It is now his ability to keep fringe players motivated will be properly tested. It is now his much vaunted injury prevention strategy will pay dividends.
He will need everything to work. The Keystone Kops mutual destruction which saw his two English centre backs injure each other during the international break has ensured he will be without both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones for this critical four week run. Just what he needs. If nothing else, it will have put his recent embrace of a three-at-the-back formation on hold. Over the next four weeks he simply does not have sufficient numbers of fit and firing centre backs to keep up with Conte and Co.
Whatever happens over the next month, whoever he manages to patch up and send out, Mourinho knows the absolute minimum he requires is to qualify for the Champions League. That was what saw off his predecessor. Winning the FA Cup was not sufficient for Louis Van Gaal. This is a club whose finances are ultimately dependent on sustained European involvement.
Despite taking up residence in sixth place, the quiet solidity built through an extensive unbeaten run has left his side in a strong position for the run-in. Four points behind Liverpool in fourth place with two games in hand (albeit that one of them is away at the Etihad) is no bad place to be. Keep tight, keep accumulating will be his mantra. Now is not the time, he will be telling his players, for demonstrating heedless, happy-go-lucky, song-and-dance football. As if it ever is under Jose Mourinho. Starting this weekend against West Bromwich Albion, United fans should strap in for a grind. Free spirited hedonism is not about to break out at Old Trafford.
The fact remains, however, that his most likely and secure route to Europe’s top competition is to win its second tier one. And how the Europa League looks second rate this season. While the continent’s true elite battle through the late stages of the Champions League, the Europa’s last eight is made up of a where-are-they-know round-up of has-beens and never-weres. United are easily the best resourced side left in the competition. Only Ajax come close to matching their history and prestige. And that, in truth, was a while ago.
Read the full article on eurosport.co.uk: Mourinho is no fool – he will not disregard the Europa League