Going on what Jose Mourinho has told the media in recent weeks you’d think he’d never managed a team in European competition before. Ever since Manchester United moved into the latter rounds of the Europa League the Portuguese has hinted he might prioritise the competition over the race to finish in the Premier League’s top four. Because United can’t compete on both fronts, being the suggestion.
This is a manager who has won the Champions League with two different clubs, making the semi-finals of the competition more than any other coach in Europe over the past decade. Mourinho has been here before, he knows how this works, and yet the demands of playing in the Europa League seems to have caught him off guard this season.
“My feeling is that we’re going to fight with everything we have in both competitions,” he said ahead of the quarter-final tie against Anderlecht. “But honestly, I have a special feeling with the Europa League and the players are the same, because it’s a competition we can win. It can give us the same as top four but it can give us a title.”
Of course, it’s possible that this is purely media bluster from Mourinho, although the team he fielded for the Premier League match against Chelsea a couple weeks ago, dropping the then fit Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan for a clash with the de facto champions, suggested that he was being entirely serious.
Maybe Mourinho is aware of what is being asked of his team. With Ajax, Celta Vigo and Lyon the opposition left, Man Utd are strong favourites to lift this season’s Europa League, with the Old Trafford club boasting the kind of talent that really should be playing at Champions League level. Memphis Depay, for instance, is one of Lyon’s best players after being sold by United in January for not being up to their standard.
But Man Utd mustn’t just win the Europa League, but win it in style. Sure, it is a means to an end for them, with qualification for next season’s Champions League being the real golden carrot they’re chasing, but there is a certain symbolism in the way United reassert themselves on the continental stage.
So far Mourinho’s side have toiled to make a strong impression on the Europa League. They have cantered for the most part, but have only won one of five away games in the competition this season. This was an opportunity for Man Utd to plant a flag ahead of their planned return to the continental elite next season. They have so far passed up that opportunity.
The semi-final against Celta Vigo, as well as the final should they get there, present one last chance for Mourinho and his players to draw a line in the sand. Their Galician opponents certainly shouldn’t be underestimated, with Eduardo Berizzo building a team that has beaten both Barcelona and Real Madrid this season, but there can be no denying that Man Utd should have the quality to see them off with relative ease. The same goes for both Ajax and Lyon.
In a way, United have more to lose than gain in the latter rounds of the Europa League. They are expected to win the tournament now that they are in the final four, and so there is only so much credit Mourinho can earn by guiding them all the way. Whereas, if Man Utd fail to make the final or win the whole thing the Portuguese will face an almighty backlash from both his own fans and the media.
Man Utd want to use the Europa League as a springboard to bigger and better things, the first step on a path that sees them return to the glory days. However, merely winning the Europa League might not spring them high enough. It matters how they win it.