Following the recent UEFA Europa League draw that pits Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United up against French outfit St. Etienne in the round of 32, the Reds will surely be confident of progress against what can only be described as average Ligue 1 opposition. From an odds perspective, United are the firm 4/1 favourites with several bookmakers to claim Europa glory in Stockholm at the back-end of May 2017.
United fans would obviously love a trip to Sweden to see their beloved side claim another European trophy, however, the Red Devils are still heavily involved in the race for automatic qualification to the Champions League next season following their 1-0 home victory over fellow top four chasers, Tottenham. Mourinho’s men broke their three-game 1-1 draw curse with a battling victory over Mauricio Pochettino’s side with a goal from the vastly improved Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
With some upcoming Premier League fixtures against sides towards the lower reaches of the table, United will be looking to gain ground on the league pacesetters, but which avenue should Jose prioritise to bring the cream of European football back to the Theatre of Dreams?
An indication of the tipsters’ belief that United can go on and lift the Europa League next summer is due to Tottenham being the comfortable second favourites themselves at around 8/1. Other notable banana skins could arrive later in the competition with Roma, Schalke and Athletic Bilbao lurking if the Reds are not hitting their straps further down the stretch. Eastern European outfits, Zenit and Shakhtar could also prove stiff opposition, but the reality is that none of these teams will wish to draw United. The strength of squad at Mourinho’s disposal is comfortably the most powerful of any remaining Europa rival, and the Red Devils really should be battling it out for the trophy at the end of this season.
United are likely to be involved in some transfer business with the winter window opening in January. Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin could be potential casualties along with Bastian Schweinsteiger as the Old Trafford powerbrokers will be looking to gain some financial returns on what can only be described as poor signings by former boss, Louis van Gaal. Mourinho previously suggested that his first team squad was on the big side, so it will be interesting to see if he decides to dip his toe in if the right players become available. The Reds have been heavily linked in the media with defensive recruits, but the recent performances of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo have suggested that United have very able deputies – if not first choice options – to cover Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling when required.
Time to kick on
Currently sat six and seven points behind local rivals, City and Liverpool, United are poised to take aim at those above them in the table in the coming weeks. With fixtures against Crystal Palace, West Brom, Middlesbrough and Sunderland before the New Year, the Reds will be looking to take maximum points to put pressure on their neighbours. United entertain Liverpool in mid-January in what could be a pivotal game in the quest for a top-four finish. Mourinho has made plenty of noise about his team ‘playing well’ in recent weeks without getting their rewards, but now is the time for his squad to deliver results, or another season of Thursday night football will be the staple diet of European action for United fans once again.
Without having a crystal ball, it is impossible to tell how the season will end, but the signs are promising that United are beginning to gradually improve under Mourinho. The football is more expansive, and whilst it is not the ‘gung-ho’ attacking style of Ferguson, it is a definite improvement on the unimaginative fayre to which van Gaal offered. United have an obvious chance in the Europa League, but it is a very punishing competition due to its extensive length throughout the season, although it is a guaranteed route into the Champions League next year and that should not be underestimated. Hopefully the Reds will also qualify through the regular route in the Premier League as our club is far too big not to be involved.