There was little excuse for Manchester United’s performance last Sunday as José Mourinho’s side slipped to yet another home draw, this time against Swansea City. Yet, for an increasingly unpredictable manager, finger-pointing was once again the order of the day as the Reds’ top-four hopes took a potentially terminal blow. There is room for improvement, with Mourinho taking his injury-hit squad to Spain on Thursday to face Celta Vigo in the Europa League semi-final. In a decidedly mixed campaign, the sweetener of more silverware remains.
Luke Shaw’s departure after only seven minutes against Swansea was tough to watch for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, to see the young left-back injured once again is hugely disappointing and it heaps further strain on a United backline already stretched to breaking point. It was also immediately clear that another dig at the young defender was inevitably incoming from Mourinho. In a thinly-veiled ‘don’t you dare have come off for anything less’ style jab, the manager made clear that he expected Shaw to have a “big injury.” Concerns over the 21-year-old’s attitude may or may not have substance, but to take another swing at him when it later emerged that his season is over helps neither player nor manager.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The Reds face Celta in a bid to reach a first ever Europa League final which, barring a remarkable turnaround, would be against an exciting young Ajax side.[/blockquote]
In fairness, the manager’s bullish methods have provoked a positive reaction from some players, but there is only so far his confrontational tactics can go before the risk of disruption grows. Taking on his players is not a new addition to the Mourinho playbook, but rarely in his career has it been called upon so early in a tenure.
Yet, for all the unrest that seems to be simmering in the manager’s mind, he may still carry his squad to two trophies in his debut season. The Reds face Celta in a bid to reach a first ever Europa League final which, barring a remarkable turnaround, would be against an exciting young Ajax side.
Firstly, however, United must negotiate a path past the Spanish outfit, something that has proven difficult in the past. In the modern European era – since the Champions League was introduced – the Reds have only emerged victorious from a trip to Spain twice in 18 attempts. Javier Hernandez’ strike against Valencia in 2010 was the last of those.
The Reds’ away record in the Europe this campaign has been unimpressive, which perhaps explains why this run to the semi-final has often felt laboured rather than inspired. Poor results abroad against less-than-stellar opposition means United has been forced to rely on good form at Old Trafford – at least in Europe.
The positive spin, is that Mourinho’s men have found themselves three wins away from a European trophy without ever hitting top form. They will need to find that extra gear if they are to seal a place in the Stockholm showpiece later this month.
Once dubbed ‘Euro Celta’ by the Spanish press, the Galician club has made more of a name on the continent than in domestic competition. Celta has survived the threat of administration and two spells in the Spanish Segunda, following a period where the club caused more than a fair share of upsets in Europe. Highlights included triumphs over Liverpool and Juventus in the old UEFA Cup, followed by a famous 7-0 home victory over SL Benfica.
Since returning to the top flight in 2012, Celta appointed the now Barcelona coach Luis Enrique, who kick-started the club’s resurgence by securing a top 10 finish at the first time of asking. Enrique was replaced by Argentine Eduardo Berizzo in 2014, who has sustained steady improvement over the past two seasons, culminating in tonight’s crunch tie at the Balaidos.
A run of five defeats in their last seven La Liga matches has resulted in Celticos slumping to 11th in the table, leaving Europe as the team’s sole focus. In addition to former Manchester City and Liverpool strikers John Guidetti and Iago Aspas, ex-Red Giuseppe Rossi now plies his trade in Vigo after spells at Villarreal and Fiorentina. The Manchester connection will be another source of motivation for these players, as well as the place in club history which beckons if defeat over United comes on the way to a first ever major trophy.
The Reds head into this tie as favourites, but a 4-3 win over Barcelona earlier this season shows that despite current form, Berizzo’s side is capable of overturning anyone.
The seemingly endless stream of bad news regarding injuries has subsided in the past few days, as United’s depleted defence is reinforced by the return of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling to training. Eric Bailly is also expected to be fit after limping off at Old Trafford on Sunday. The Ivorian has held the back four together on occasion, and United fans covered their eyes in horror after his self-inflicted injury gave rise to the very real prospect of Matteo Darmian at centre-back. Mourinho may be reluctant to throw both Smalling and Jones straight back into the fray, so Bailly will likely line up at centre-back once again.
In midfield, Marouane Fellaini is available for European competition while serving his domestic ban, and Paul Pogba should return to the side, although the Frenchman’s recurring muscular issues are a worrying sign that his season’s race may almost be run. Mourinho will be delighted if the midfielder can stay fit for the crucial run-in, as his absence from recent games has demonstrated the scale of his influence.
Marcus Rashford cut a frustrated figure against Swansea, seemingly exasperated a lack of service. Pogba’s forward-thinking should alleviate some of those concerns, but it seems the form of others in the attacking line cannot be consistently relied on. Anthony Martial has been one of several Mourinho targets this campaign, and he has displayed the typical inconsistency of youth following a stellar first season. The influence of Henrikh Mkhitaryan has also waned since his re-emergence before the turn of the year. There was hope that the Armenian, fresh from his early season exile, would lead the way in terms of goals and assists in the latter half of the campaign. But, after a promising run the playmaker seems to have lost his way; he was anonymous against Manchester City and worryingly ineffectual when introduced at the weekend.
Celta subs from: Blanco, Roncaglia, Lemos, Planas, Diaz, Orellana, Bongonda, Jozebed, Rossi, Beauvue
United subs from: De Gea, Young, Smalling, Jones, Tuanzebe, Lingard, Mata, Rooney
The return of Juan Mata could well be the answer to United’s attacking impotence in recent weeks. The Spaniard has battled back from a groin injury which some reports claimed would end his season, and he could be vital as the squad continues to be rotated heavily. Mata has an uncanny knack of notching important goals and assists, and his presence is a timely boost for Mourinho as he despairs at the queue for the treatment table. The manager’s pragmatic tendencies in big games, however, suggests that a starting berth for the Spaniard will be a measure of how much he now trusts Mata to do his bidding defensively.
The Reds are overdue a memorable evening on the continent, but must be wary of a Celta Vigo side which has grown increasingly comfortable on the European stage. The aforementioned victory over Barcelona will instil belief that Celta has nothing to fear against United. Mourinho, however, is no stranger to European semi-finals and will bank on his side to be in Stockholm in a few weeks’ time.
Referee: Sergey Karasev
Assistant Referees: Anton Averianov, Tikhon Kalugin
Additional Assistants: Sergey Lapochkin, Sergey Ivanov
Celta 0 – 1 United