There were times during Louis van Gaal’s regime at Manchester United when the Dutchman’s team couldn’t record 37 shots in a month, let alone a game. Fast forward a few months and the current vintage has few problem creating chances; it’s the finishing that is letting the team down. Indeed, it seems churlish to complain about United’s draw with Burnley at the weekend despite all those failed efforts on goal. After all, José Mourinho’s team actually produced a fine attacking display, save for the lack of chances taken.
The problem, however, is manifest. United’s home draw with the Clarets leaves Mourinho’s side eight points behind the Premier League’s pace-setters. As the leaves fall, the team is just a couple of reversals from being out of the title reckoning altogether. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. More worrisome still is a form book that shows just four wins in the past 10 games: three came against Thursday’s opponents, Zorya Luhansk and Northampton Town. There is, it seems, no guarantee that the Reds will find a way back to parity with Manchester City and Arsenal, let alone national preeminence.
So, despite United’s attacking output at the weekend, the pressure builds. Mourinho cannot afford too many more negative results even at such an early stage of the season. This is the covenant that comes with the United job. One made so much more difficult after three years of abject failure.
What, then, of the Reds’ visit to Fenerbahce for a Europa League fixture that nobody truly wants? It is a competition that appeals to few fans, wrecks the team’s schedule, and offers Old Trafford’s bean counters precious little reward. It is the punishment for Van Gaal’s fifth-place finish last May.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]What of the Reds’ visit to Fenerbahce for a Europa League fixture that nobody truly wants? It is a competition that appeals to few fans, wrecks the team’s schedule and offers Old Trafford’s bean counters precious little reward. Punishment for Van Gaal’s fifth-place finish last May.[/blockquote]
Yet, Mourinho would be also ill-advised to let another game slip into the ether of mediocrity. The pressure is already building after four defeats this season, some of them traumatic. If that suggests Mourinho will pick a strong side, then perhaps the spectre of Champions League qualification aids the manager’s thinking as well. Defeat on Thursday could end United’s hopes of qualifying for the knock-out stages – and with it a potential place in the main competition, now offered as a reward for the Europa League winner. Little lustre, perhaps, but a carrot remains.
“My opinion changes because the rules change, and because the Europa League winner has a direct spot for the Champions League,” said Mourinho on Wednesday. “In the last couple of years, the Europa League for the big clubs has a different meaning because it’s another way to try to qualify for the Champions League.”
United beat Fenerbahce comfortably at Old Trafford last time out, although the Turks’ form has taken an upturn in the past fortnight. Dick Advocaat’s side beat Karabükspor 5-0 at the weekend, adding to a narrow victory over Konyaspor the week before. Four victories in the past five games to ease the pressure on the Dutch veteran.
“The fact that Fenerbahce is back to victories is not a surprise, I think it’s the normal situation,” added Mourinho. “The Turkish league is improving all the time. Some teams outside Istanbul are coming to fight for the top positions. I think the three big traditional clubs in Istanbul are very strong, they have very good players, very experienced managers, players with experience of the highest level and international competitions.”
Advocaat, the former Sunderland, Rangers and Netherlands national team manager, had overseen a difficult start to the new campaign, with his side slipping to ninth in the Super Lig at one stage. Yet, with form returning and Fenerbahce on four points in Group A, the Istanbul outfit has a very real chance of qualification for the knock-out stages. Especially with United due to face group leaders Feyenoord at Old Trafford later this month. Robin van Persie and company have all the incentive required to go for victory.
Meanwhile, Advocaat believes that Mourinho’s challenges at United are short-lived, with the new Reds’ manager yet to find a settled line-up or any real identity three months after taking on the job.
“It is a matter of time, he knows that. Quality-wise if you have six players it is still difficult to find a team: is it Martial, is it Rashford, is it Rooney?” said Advocaat.
“They will start winning games as well, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will start scoring because that man knows how to score. At the moment not everything is going the right way, but see how many chances they have got last Saturday. They had so many chances it was unbelievable they did not score. There is no reason to be worried about the team and about the manager. This man proved himself in all countries.”
True, but rebuilding this United side may be the former Chelsea, Real Madrid and Inter manager’s greatest challenge. One that’ll be made all the more difficult should United slip to defeat in Turkey – whatever the prevailing sentiment for the competition.
United subs from: Romero, Johnstone, Jones, Fosu-Mensah, Fellaini, Mkhitaryan, Mata, Schneiderlin, Young, Martial
Fenerbahce subs from: Taşkıran, Korkmaz, Potuk, Turfan, Fernandão, Zeybek, van der Wiel, Civelek, Neustädter, Emenike, Stoch, Uçan
Antonio Valencia’s injury means that Matteo Darmian is set for an extended run at right-back. The Italian has played little under Mourinho, but will feature in what could be a make-shift back four at the Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium. Eric Bailly’s injury and Chris Smalling’s inconsistency could leave the door open for Marcos Rojo to start, while Phil Jones is also part of the travelling party. The Englishman is more likely to settle for a place on the bench.
“He’s having a difficult relationship with injuries and it’s been difficult this season for him,” said the manager. “He worked hard to recover and he’s training with the team for more than a week now.”
Elsewhere, Mourinho can ill-afford to make wholesale changes despite United’s heavy schedule over the past month. The United squad will land back in Manchester during the early hours of Friday morning, leaving just one training session before the team faces Swansea City on Sunday. It is far from ideal preparation, it far from ideal circumstances.
It means that Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Zlatan Ibrahimovic could all start in Turkey, while Wayne Rooney may come back into the side in a midfield position. The Scouser has made only irregular appearances since being dropped in September. Yet, Ibrahimovic, in particular, would benefit from a rest, with the veteran Swede having scored just once in his past 10 games. The striker took on 12 shots against Burnley at the weekend without scoring.
Meanwhile, Henryk Mkhitaryan was named in the 21-man travelling group and could feature from the bench, although there is no place for Bastian Schweinsteiger did not make the official Europa League list earlier this season. The German began training with the first team again this week after being frozen out by Mourinho this season.
Referee: Milorad Mažić
Milovan Ristić, Dalibor Djurdjević
Fourth official: Nemanja Petrović,
Additional assistants: Danilo Grujić, Nenad Djokić
Fenerbahce 1 – 1 United