Four points – the difference between Manchester United’s elimination from this season’s Europa League and the humiliation of having to play in Europe’s second tier competition past the New Year. José Mourinho’s side could collect three of the four points required to qualify from Group A on Thursday night with Feyenoord visiting Old Trafford. The real question, of course, is whether any of the players are really up for it?
True, the Reds’ performance in beating Fenerbahce at home last month was spirited. Few other United games in this dog of a competition have matched either the quality of performance against Fenerbahce at Old Trafford or, frankly, the level of effort. And while it is a cliché to point to questions of ‘desire’ or ‘effort’ after defeat, it is also an inescapable conclusion to be drawn from United’s defeat in Turkey on match-day four, the loss at Feyenoord in the opening fixture of the campaign, and in the narrow and unsatisfying victory over minnows Zorya. Neither players, manager, or fans place any priority on the Europa League.
Indeed, it is perhaps only United’s money-men that really do want progress. Not least because Liverpool made some £35 million out of the Europa League last season, not counting gate receipts. With United’s level of debt having increased by £50 million after the recent devaluation in the value of the pound, the potential revenue is attractive.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Four points – the difference between Manchester United’s elimination from this season’s Europa League and the humiliation of having to play in Europe’s second tier competition past the New Year. [/blockquote]
On the pitch United could also do with building a sense of momentum, whatever the lack of kudos associated with the Europa League. Recent home draws against Stoke City, Burnley and Arsenal are a major set-back, both in terms of the team’s progress and the potential to finish in the Premier League’s top four.
United’s performance in all three games was positive at least, with the Reds taking some 75 shots on goal. Only a frustrating lack of composure stood between Mourinho’s side and six extra points. They may well be points that the Portuguese manager lives to regret next May.
Victory over Feyenoord could add to a sense that, despite inconsistent results, not all is unhealthy at Old Trafford. Another reverse will inevitably build pressure.
“Feyenoord is a game that has become knockout because we need four points to qualify, which is one victory and one draw – this means we will pay for a defeat,” Mourinho told MUTV.
“I want to give the team the best chance to win the match, so I select a strong team. We want to secure qualification to the knockout stages in 2017, but obviously I will need to rest players in order to keep them fresh for the next two matches against West Ham. They are both important games, but we will play with a strong team against Feyenoord.”
United suffered a reverse at De Kuip in September, a match that seemed to encapsulate the Reds’ poor performances away from home in Europe where the team looks inward, and holds a fragile level of confidence. Old Trafford represents a different proposition, of course, and there can be little time to countenance a similar defeat on Thursday night.
In that spirit Mourinho is likely to set up the team with an attacking mindset. It is an observation of which Feyenoord boss Giovanni van Bronckhorst is aware.
“In De Kuip we have seen that it is possible to get a good result against Manchester United,” Van Bronckhorst said on Wednesday.
“Now their approach will be different to then, because United must now win. That makes this a very different game than in Rotterdam.”
“I’ve played a few times at Old Trafford and know that the atmosphere here is fantastic. These are special matches. It’s only the third time that Feyenoord and United play each other in the last 20 years. For my players this game is a way to compete with the very top players.”
United’s players would like that too – in the Champions League next season. For that, results domestically must improve. Or United could win the Europa League. That might present a step too far.
United subs from: Romero, Fosu-Mensah, Blind, Carrick, Fellaini, Young, Mata, Memphis, Martial
Feyenoord subs from: Vermeer, van Beek, Vejinović, Elia, Başaçıkoğlu, Tapia, Nieuwkoop, Kramer, Hansson, Başaçıkoğlu
Mourinho is likely to recall forward Henryk Mkhtarayan for the Armenian’s second start of the season. The £30 million summer purchase has been largely frozen out at United, having appeared in only five of 19 match day squads this season. Rumours that Mourinho does not believe Mkhtarayan holds the mental fortitude to make it at United persist.
Elsewhere, Chris Smalling is out with a broken toe, with Eric Bailly also still on the sidelines. The Ivorian is likely to return in early December before jetting off to the African Cup of Nations in the new year. Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones will continue an unlikely partnership at the back.
In midfield Marianne Fellaini is a doubt with a minor calf-strain, while Wayne Rooney hopes to start after appearing as a substitute against Arsenal at the weekend. Mourinho must decide whether to rest either or both of Paul Pogba and Juan Mata ahead of a double-header against West Ham United next week. Both have enjoyed good performances in recent games.
Up front Zlatan Ibrahimovic could return after the Swede missed United’s draw with Arsenal through suspension. The 35-year-old striker has scored just once in the past eight matches but lacks nothing in confidence. United might just need it on Thursday.
“I’ve been in the game for 20 years, and while I’m getting older, I feel I am getting better as I get older,” said Ibrahimovic. “I am shining in one way or another, but if you want me to shine even more then I will try and do it for you!”
“Once I stepped into Manchester, the whole city was shining. I’m not sure how much it was shining before, but it is shining now, 24 hours. Even if it gets dark by three or four o’clock I am enjoying it here, working really hard and training really hard. I feel comfortable here in Manchester, I feel good and I am happy.”