The cavalry may be coming back for Manchester United but that did not prevent Jose Mourinho from throwing in the towel in the race for the top four.
The United manager is staking everything on Europa League glory, and if aiding that process means making wholesale changes against Arsenal on Sunday and Crystal Palace on the final day of the Premier League season, it is a price he made clear he is prepared to pay.
A Celta Vigo side who have beaten both Barcelona and Real Madrid this season stand between United and a place in the final in Stockholm on May 24 and, as far as Mourinho is concerned, the competition now becomes the priority after months fighting fatigue on two fronts.
A startling admission from the manager of a club who hope to become only the fourth team after Ajax, Bayern Munich and Juventus to achieve a clean sweep of Champions League, Europa League, European Cup Winners’ Cup, European Super Cup as well as the Club World Cup?
Yes, all the more so now Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are available again after injury, Eric Bailly is fit despite Sunday’s scare in the 1-1 draw at home to Swansea City and United trail Manchester City, in fourth, by just a point.
But unless Mourinho was hoping to draw Arsène Wenger, a man to whom he has not lost in 15 competitive fixtures, into a false sense of security, United’s line-up at the Emirates Stadium will look very different from the side he hopes will take a notable advantage into the second leg of this semi-final at Old Trafford next Thursday.
“It is the only competition that Manchester United never won and it would be great to close that circle and say we are a club that won every single competition in the football world,” Mourinho said.
“I think it would be a good achievement given the problems we have had and allow us to be back in the Champions League next season so we are going to try and the Europa League becomes, for us, now more important.
“Of course it depends on the result [against Celta Vigo], how we analyse the game, but if we have to rest players next weekend [against Arsenal] then we are going to do that.
“If players played the hypothetical final they would not be selected to play on the Sunday before [against Palace].
“In relation to the Europa League it’s very important they [Smalling and Jones] come [back] on time. But in relation to Premier League I think it’s too late because in the past month we played nine matches and we had too many problems and because of that players who had to play 750 or 800 minutes of football and we paid the price.”
Any notion that United, for whom Luke Shaw has been ruled out for the season, have been granted a bye into the final should be given short shrift, though. Celta overcame Real Madrid over two legs to reach the Copa del Rey this season, and also beat Barcelona 4-3 at their Balaídos stadium last October and, in Iago Aspas, John Guidetti and Pione Sisto, possess a dangerous attack who will not be short of motivation.
Aspas has been reinvigorated by Eduardo Berizzo, Celta’s coach, after an unhappy two years at Liverpool, John Guidetti likewise after failing to make the grade at another of United’s bitter rivals, Manchester City, and Sisto scored in both legs of FC Midtjylland’s round-of-32 tie against United last season. Like Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao, who beat United home and away in this competition in 2012, Celta love to press and probe and Berizzo, who was Bielsa’s assistant for Chile, will draw inspiration from what his mentor did.
“I was a witness of Marcelo Bielsa’s match with Athletic Bilbao in Manchester, he found a tactical solution and that may be a clue for us to follow,” Berizzo said.
“We want to get a result that gives us a chance of winning [the tie] and the only way of doing that is being faithful to who we are. I think this team believe in this identity – a lot of pressure, possession, recovering the ball quickly to attack again. We will win with conviction, identity and with heart, or at least we hope to.”