Such is the way that Manchester United’s Premier League campaign has fallen apart over the last month that Jose Mourinho and his beleaguered charges must be viewing the club’s cup commitments with a bit more enthusiasm than normal. Last week’s 4-1 EFL Cup quarter final victory over West Ham United and the preceding 4-0 win over Feyenoord six days previously have left United in the semi-finals of England’s second cup competition and well placed to qualify for the last 32 of the Europa League. Given that Mourinho’s side now sit a whopping thirteen points behind Chelsea atop the Premier League, any shred of positivity is worth grasping for.
Sunday’s disappointing 1-1 draw with Everton at Goodison Park has put further pressure on United to succeed in the Europa League this season, given that Manchester City have a healthy nine point buffer in fourth place between themselves and their local rivals. A Champions League spot is available to the competition’s winners, and Mourinho must be looking at Thursday’s trip to face Zorya Luhansk with extra importance as a result.
A draw against the Ukrainian side will be enough to secure qualification from Group A, with a victory sealing top spot unless Fenerbahce beat Feyenoord in the group’s other fixture. Of course, that seems simple enough, until you remember that those two sides have both beaten United with a degree of comfort in their home stadiums during this campaign, and United are winless in their last seven European games away from Old Trafford. Man Utd are overwhelming favourites with bookmakers to beat Zorya on Thursday night, with many offering odds on around 33/100. We’re tipping Lingard to score first and Manchester United to win 3-0.
As such, Mourinho will likely be reticent to take any chances with his starting XI. Juan Mata, absent for the last two fixtures should start, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan holding onto his place on the right side of the attack. The Armenian has looked lively and dangerous of late, and has seemingly adjusted to what his manager requires of him. Given United’s struggles to score goals and perform consistently, Mkhitaryan’s form has offered something of a silver lining.
Doubts remain about United’s defence, but the surprise return of Eric Bailly to the substitute’s bench on Sunday suggests that some stability should return to Mourinho’s back four in due course. Michael Carrick was one of many who struggled against Ronald Koeman’s side, and will likely not be risked for a third game in eight days, which could potentially leave Bastian Schweinsteiger or Morgan Schneiderlin to fight it out for a place in central midfield.
Above all, Mourinho will surely be desperate to see some fight and confidence from his side, two things that have both been in short supply when United have been on the road this season. All too frequently, his team have conceded and struggled to offer a sufficient response, which is why their title ambitions are in tatters. Progress to the EFL Cup semi-finals, and a two-legged tie with Hull City in January offers a nice distraction, and confirming the club’s presence in the Europa League’s knockout stages would be welcome, but Mourinho will be keenly aware that these are base expectations for his expensively assembled side. As such, the Portuguese must surely be looking to get the best possible result against Zorya come Thursday night.