It has been a strange kind of season for Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. A deluge of 4-0 wins in the opening months led many fans to believe the club could seriously challenge for the title for the first time since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. Instead, it is Manchester City who will win the league, breaking an abundance of records in the process, and quite possibly confirm their status in the derby next month should results go as expected.
In a sense, United are doing about as well as one might have expected since it became clear City were unlikely to be stopped; second in the league and still in the FA Cup and Champions League is nothing to be sniffed at in mid-March. And yet it still feels as though something is missing, a general sense of unrest in the stands that rears its head occasionally when confronted with negative substitutions or conservative passing.
The importance of tonight’s match against Sevilla cannot be overstated. Recent defeats to Spurs and Newcastle left some wondering whether the side were in freefall but the response, a sensational comeback at Crystal Palace sandwiched by victories at home to Chelsea and Liverpool, has seen the ship steadied somewhat. That being said, it is not hard to imagine the atmosphere souring if United crash out of the Champions League this evening, not least given the manager’s approach to the tie.
Mourinho made it very clear that he was more than happy with a goalless draw in the first leg and, thanks to the heroics of David de Gea, the United manager got what he came for. Some felt the tactics were unnecessarily negative, especially considering Sevilla couldn’t really be considered one of the most frightening teams left in the competition. It is hard to escape the feeling that the Portuguese would prefer his team were considered underdogs in just about any game they take part in, adopting a cautious approach even when confronted with Huddersfield in the cup last month. Presumably he wants his players to get into the habit of ceding possession and catching opponents on the break in preparation for the toughest tests. While it might be frustrating for supporters to witness against lesser opposition, if it ultimately results in success in the biggest matches then few would complain.
While those that made the trip to Spain might have felt aggrieved by United’s approach, not many would argue should the team progress to the quarter-finals. Mourinho is relying on a home win and this makes sense since perhaps his most considerable achievement since taking over at the club has been restoring the Old Trafford aura and, while it might not be the fortress of old just yet, City are the only visiting team to have won on the ground since September 2016. If, however, the gamble backfires and United crash out of the Champions League this evening (and, lest we forget, a score draw would be enough for Sevilla to progress) then expect the atmosphere to turn toxic. United’s fans expect to compete for the biggest trophies and, with the league title heading across the city, a round of 16 appearance in Europe won’t satiate the Old Trafford faithful.