The Europa League has provided United fans with something resembling a welcome break from the disappointment of the Premier League campaign. After the now typical draw against Swansea City last weekend, attention turned to continental conquests, and the first European semi-final involving Manchester United in six seasons. Celta Vigo stands between José Mourinho’s side and the Europa League final, but for the moment the focus comes back to the Premier League and Sunday’s fixture against Arsenal.
The Europa League began the season as a side project, but has morphed into United’s ultimate destination. As the team ran out at Balaídos on Thursday night, with mercurial midfielder Paul Pogba returning to the starting line-up, United looked unfazed by the occasion. The overall feel was one of comfort. That’s an observation not often made this season.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The Europa League began the season as a side project, but has morphed into United’s ultimate destination. United looked unfazed by the occasion.[/blockquote]
Yet, Mourinho’s side was never truly dominant either. Celta enjoyed far more of the ball, yet failed to create anything to test designated European ‘keeper Sergio Romero. Aside from an early opportunity that Celta’s Daniel Wass put wide, Mourinho’s team was relatively unchallenged and managed to create the better opportunities. Had it not been for Sergio Alvarez’ heroics, the scoreline could have left United three of four goals to the good.
The tie was settled in just one moment of brilliance from Marcus Rashford, as has often been the case since the youngster’s introduction into the team some 15 months ago. The boy from Wythenshawe curled a free kick into the ‘wrong side’ – his first goal from outside the penalty area, giving United a crucial away goal, and a lead heading into the second leg.
Rashford looked the most likely player to break the deadlock all evening, finding himself in one-on-one situations with various members of the Celta defence – often getting the better of his opponent. Rashford picked up a knock late in the game which is already the cause of some concern, but in the longer term Mourinho should take confidence in the fact he has a match-winner on his books, no matter the player’s age.
Sunday’s fixture at Arsenal arrives with barely a moment for the manager’s troops to take stock. Game number 59 of the season will take the Reds some 200 miles south. Only victory will keep United within touching distance of the top four.
It has been a testing season for Arsenal and, in particular, Arsene Wenger. The longtime manager of North London’s premiere side has felt the heat of exponentially growing scrutiny this season – and his record of finishing in a Champions League spot every season since the year 2000 is genuinely under threat. Sunday’s fixture represents something of a must-win – a last roll of the dice, and a potentially decisive game in Wenger’s future.
Many of Arsenal’s woes this season can be attributed to the team’s lacklustre defensive efforts. Petr Cech is a fine goalkeeper, and one Mourinho will be very familiar with, but the Czech must be incredibly disappointed to have conceded 42 goals this season. Much of that defensive frailty can be attributed to failure’s in the shield: Gabriel, Per Mertesacker, Laurant Koscielny, Rob Holding, and company are all decent players. None are world class.
Perhaps Arsenal’s defensive record could be forgiven if the team still had a potent attack, but the Gooners have flattered to deceive in this regard as well. Olivier Giroud is good striker, but a notch below the finest in the league. Injury is a factor, but Giroud is yet to notch double figures in the season. In his absence, Arsenal have failed to achieve consistent production from Theo Walcott or Mesut Ozil, leaving Wenger’s hopes on the shoulders of Alexis Sanchez. It’s likely Sanchez will be the key man on Sunday.
Above all else, football is a game of results. As United have demonstrated this season, it’s possible to stay relevant for much of the season if defeat is avoided. Wenger’s team has lost. Quite a bit. Dropping points against Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur is forgivable, given the calibre of those squads, but humbling at the hands of West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace is not. The recent derby defeat is likely to irk Arsenal’s fans event more – and nine losses in the season is unlikely to yield a positive conclusion.
Heading into Sunday’s game Arsenal remain nine points behind Liverpool and City, albeit with two games in hand. If Wenger is to pull off the most unlikely finish to the season, his team must win every game from now on – starting with United’s visit on Sunday.
Given Mourinho’s insistence that United’s top four hopes are all but finished, it’s no surprise that he has prioritised the wellbeing of his players heading into Sunday’s clash. Antonio Valencia, Eric Bailly, Marcus Rashford, and Jesse Lingard will likely sit out the trip to north London, having played the majority of available minutes in recent weeks. While three of those four made the journey south, it would be no surprise key players protected for next Thursday’s Europa League return leg. Indeed, Mourinho’s travelling squad includes no less than six reserve team players, indicating the manager’s willingness to rest some battle-worn stars.
“We are not going to Arsenal to say ‘beat us 5-0 or 6-0’. We are going there to fight for a result but it’s impossible. I cannot do it another way,” said Mourinho.
“If Celta were playing with their best team and, if Celta were fighting for important things in La Liga, we would go in the same circumstances but I cannot now play the same team that played [in Vigo] and then we play again next Thursday. I think, in the last match against Swansea, we lost our last chance to fight for the top four so I’m going to rest players.”
Arsenal subs from: Ospina, Bellerín, Jenkinson, Debuchy, Holding, Pérez, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Elneny, Walcott, Sanogo, Iwobi, Welbeck
United subs from: Romero, Pereira, Tuanzebe, Romero, Pogba, Lingard, Valencia, Rashford, Olosunde, Mitchell, Willock, McTominay
Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have returned to regular training after seemingly weeks of public nagging by the manager. Both could play a part on Sunday, while Juan Mata may start after spending the past two games on the bench. Mata was absent for a little under a month following season-threatening groin surgery, and his return is be a welcome boost to United’s attacking options.
Premier League ‘keeper David de Gea returns, although Mourinho is still at pains to deny the job-share he has instilled this season.
“I don’t like to say this competition is for one keeper and that competition is for another one,” he said. “Sergio played one match in the Premier League, David played two matches in the Europa League against Feyenoord and Fenerbahce. Sergio also played one match in the League Cup, David played in the other matches and in the final. I don’t like that complete separation. But, Sunday, we play David.”
Anthony Martial could return to the more central role in which he thrived against Burnley. Martial has played out a largely forgettable season, but a strong finish could help the Frenchman get on favourable terms with the manager heading into the new campaign. Wayne Rooney could return, possibly in place of Paul Pogba.
With the focus of the season now clearly set on reaching, and winning, the Europa League final, the manager might be forgiven for thinking of Sunday’s tie as a burden. Get in, get out, no one gets hurt. Yet, with the club’s injury list looking somewhat lighter than it did a few weeks ago, Mourinho could set his sights on something better than avoid more long terms losses.
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistants: S Beck, S Ledger
Fourth official: C Pawson
Arsenal 1-1 United