On Saturday, United defeated Huddersfield to secure their place in the last eight of the FA Cup. This was the first hurdle in a difficult week, in which United play three games in three separate tournaments. The results in these three fixtures could determine whether or not United have a successful season.
Their next game is the first leg of the first knockout stage of the Champions League away to Sevilla. Any away game in European football is difficult, but this United side should have enough to progress. Mourinho is almost purpose-built for knockout football. This United side is capable of playing on the counter, which will serve them well in this tie. If United can come away from Seville with a win, draw or an away goal, they will be well poised to continue deeper into the competition.
A victory over both legs will put United in the quarter finals of the Champions League for the first time since 2014 (yes, that Moyes season). That would undoubtedly be progress, regardless of what happened after that tie. Mourinho would be able to say he’s doing his job and is on his way to repairing the club’s reputation.
If United weren’t able to progress against Sevilla, it would be nothing short of a disaster. Especially considering how they were handed a relatively easy draw by managing to avoid Bayern, Juventus and Real Madrid. To compound the potential misery, Liverpool, City and possibly Spurs and Chelsea may progress further. It would be a depressing outcome and questions would be asked about Mourinho’s ability to still perform in Europe.
Following this huge game, United welcome Chelsea to Old Trafford, fresh/knackered from their draw with Barcelona. After some wobbly recent form from both teams, only three points separate the two sides. They’re also looking over their shoulder at a resurgent Spurs, Chelsea are three points clear while United are only a point further away. Neither side can afford to lose this game.
United have a woeful record against Chelsea. If you don’t count the victory at the end of last season, United haven’t beaten the Blues at Old Trafford since 2011. Famously, Mourinho also has a very poor record in the big games since becoming United manager. This is going to be an incredibly tough fixture and it will be interesting to see how United approach this game. Will they try and sneak a win or take the initiative and attempt to attack?
If United can win this match, they will go six points clear of Chelsea. This could be enough to keep the Blues out of the race for second place altogether. The battle for fourth would be by no means over, but a victory against another rival would certainly aid them in securing that incredibly important Champions League place.
However, if United were to lose this game, they would be level on points with Chelsea and potentially behind Liverpool. They would very much be in a battle for the top four. Suddenly, United would be in crisis yet again. After all the talk of going for the title in the summer, the Reds would find themselves only slightly improved on last year. That would be after spending over £150m pounds on new players. Not really good enough for the fans or board.
It really is a crucial moment in United’s season. Failure to do well in both these games opens the club and Jose up to a lot of criticism. Are the club’s long-term targets being met? Does the squad need another overhaul? Is the manager past it? Is the club past it? There would still be time to recover the season, but is top four and an FA Cup enough to satisfy the board and the fans? Or worse, what if they fail to achieve even that? If the club goes backwards from last season, what happens then?
Win both these games and the end of the season is set up very well. Aside from being miles behind City in the league. Second place and in the later rounds of two major cups is a good position to be in at the end of February. If United were to progress further in those competitions and retain that second place position, it would undoubtedly be an improvement on recent seasons. The club would be actively progressing. The board would be happy to back the manager yet again in an attempt to catch City next season.
What do I think will happen? I feel that United can come through both of these games undefeated if they play their cards right. If they play cleverly in Spain I think they can easily nab an away goal and set themselves up nicely for the return leg.
The game back in England is much more difficult and I have a bad feeling that Jose will try to kill the game by being defensive. Historically, this doesn’t seem to work well for this United side. If he goes down that route I fear they will be defeated, just like the game at Stamford Bridge earlier this year. However, if Mourinho goes for the jugular and unleashes United’s attacking might, I think they’ve got a real chance of winning. Chelsea are in a very strange position at the moment, United should look to take advantage.
It seems ridiculous to say that a whole season can hinge on one week. While this week won’t completely decide this season, it will have a huge impact on the eventual outcome. Like a butterfly’s wings that cause a hurricane a few weeks later, a poor result in Sevilla could ultimately cost Jose Mourinho his job. Let’s just hope that at the end of this week, United have had two positive results. The other outcome will probably result in an angrier column next week.