Which is the greater priority: finishing inside the Premier League’s top four or winning the Europa League? With each comes Champions League qualification, although only victory in Europe’s second tier competition brings with it silverware. Certainly, the regularly dropped points in the Premier League this season has placed greater emphasis on European competition. The latest side in United’s path – Belgian league leaders Anderlecht.
Indeed, José Mourinho may be leaning towards prioritising the Europa League, a decision perhaps reflected in the manager’s mixed selection against Sunderland last weekend. It has been a tough competition, with the Thursday-Sunday dynamic significantly impacting United’s ability to pick up domestic league points. Mourinho’s team has dropped points after five of United’s 10 Europa League matches this season, and the Reds’ manager has been forced to constantly juggle his resources.
Yet, the Portuguese described his “special feeling” towards the Europa League this week. After all, Mourinho is a coach that hunts down trophies, having already collected two in his time with United. The trade-off may well come in the Premier League with United having to play catch up on Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City in the race for Champions League qualification. Mourinho talks a good game though, and appears to still believe that his team can fight on both fronts.
“We still have two open doors and my feeling is that we are really going to fight in both competitions,” he said. “Honestly, I have a special feeling with the Europa League; it’s a competition we can win. It can give us the same as the top four, which is to play Champions League, but it can give us a title. But we are going to give everything, domestically and in Europe, to reach the Champions League.”
This weekend Chelsea arrive at Old Trafford, leaving Mourinho with another rotating challenge for Thursday’s fixture against Anderlecht. Does he prioritise the Europa League tie, or the one against the Champions elect, a team that has beaten United twice already this season? Mourinho’s selection against Sunderland reflected both a desire to rest key players and also a lack of confidence in the breadth of his squad. While David de Gea and Antonio Valencia sat out the fixture, Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan all started. Presumably, that trio will also play both against Anderlecht and Chelsea. No time for burnout now.
The Frenchman, who has received the expected intense level of scrutiny over his performances and transfer fee this season, echoes the sentiments of his manager: United will fight on two fronts over the remaining six weeks of what has already been a heavily scheduled season.
“I want to do both. I think we can do both. We just have to be focused and work hard, I think we can do it,” said Pogba. “I came to Manchester United for a challenge. It’s normal for this club to be in the Champions League. We have to get back into it, that’s the objective, that’s the big one. We won two trophies but, obviously, I always want to do better. The team is doing good and we are looking to win the Europa League and fight for the top four.”
Pogba’s £89 million fee has prefaced every conversation about the 24-year-old’s impact at United this season. Yet, the numbers also bear out a successful campaign, even if United’s number six has not always grabbed the headlines. Pogba has four goals and three assists this season, but averages more than two key passes per game from an average of over 70 passes in each match. He has also hit the woodwork on 10 occasions in all competitions this season. Or in other words, Pogba is at the centre of United’s play, but would have much better numbers but for lax finishing, by both himself and his teammates.
“I think people are looking at me and judging me for not scoring goals, but that’s football,” Pogba added. “They want me to score goals because of the mountain of the transfer. My job is to be a midfielder, to make assists. I’m doing a job. When I pass to people and they don’t score, it can happen. People want me to score because of the transfer fee, but I don’t think about that. If I can make the team win, I will do it. If I was scoring the goals that had hit the crossbar, I don’t think people would be saying this.”
This is true, although United may need the Frenchman to be more productive against Anderlecht on Thursday and then again with Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday. It is the time of the season when champions are made.
The 33-times Belgian title winners have been far from dominant in recent seasons, having not secured the Jupiler League since 2014. Yet, the giants of the Belgian game are leading the league this time out, and can boast a group of talent youngsters that are developing rapidly under manager René Weiler. Star man Youri Thielemans is catching the eye of Europe’s largest clubs, including United according to some reports, with a strong set of performances from midfield and an increasingly healthy selection of spectacular long-range efforts to add to his CV. Alongside the 19-year-old Belgian international will be the more defensive Leander Dendoncker, another recent debutant for the national side under Roberto Martinez.
Swiss manager Weiler enjoyed a journeyman career as a player, before taking up coaching in his late 20s. Having managed a number of Swiss second tier clubs, Weiler took the reins at FC Nürnberg in Bundesliga 2 in 2014, taking Der Club to third place, but missing out on promotion. He joined Anderlecht last summer with a remit to restore the capital club to former glories.
Weiler has his young Anderlecht side playing attacking, but pragmatic football, with the Brussels outfit winning the regular season group stage, before beginning the playoffs in positive fashion over the past fortnight. The odds remain that Weiler will lead Les Mauves et Blancsto a first championship in four years.
In the Europa League Anderlecht finished behind Saint-Étienne in the group stage, giving some indication to the side’s quality, before narrowly beating Apoel in the Round of 16. The team has won five of the past six European home games, however, with the only reverse coming against Saint-Étienne.
United remains overwhelming favourites to progress – and indeed to win the tournament overall – although Mourinho is cautious about Thursday’s opponent.
“They are a good team and have a certain way of playing, adapted to the qualities of their players,” he said. “They play well, press well and have talented players. I think we have to play at our best level. We have that second leg as a possible protection, but tomorrow it’s important to play well – if we don’t we put ourselves in a difficult situation. When a team arrives at this stage of the competition, the motivation is high.”
Mourinho will recall right-back Valencia after a two-game absence, with the Ecuadorian training on Wednesday morning. However, striker Wayne Rooney did not travel to Belgium, with the player “not happy with his condition” according to the manager. Rooney has two sore ankles, but could yet return to United’s squad for the weekend fixture against Chelsea.
Elsewhere, injuries to Phil Jones and Chris Smalling limit the manager’s options in defence, with Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo expected to once again form a centre back partnership. Luke Shaw played an hour against Sunderland at the weekend, but is likely to be replaced by Daley Blind at left-back. The rested David de Gea returns in goal, with Sergio Romero dropping to the bench.
Anderlecht subs from: Najar, Bruno, Teodorczyk, Vancamp, Deschacht, Nuytinck, Appiah, Capel, Achteampong, Doumbia, Trebel
United subs from: Romero, Pereira, Darmian, Shaw, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe, Carrick, Young, Lingard, Martial
In midfield Ander Herrera should start alongside Pogba, with Michael Carrick or Marouane Fellaini making up the trio. Marcus Rashford, Antony Martial, and Mkhitaryan compete for two spots in wide areas, supporting the lone striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Referee: Felix Brych
Assistant referees: Mark Borsch, Stefan Lupp
Fourth official: Rafael Foltyn (
Additional assistants: Bastian Dankert, Marco Fritz
Anderlecht 1-1 United