By John Ryan
- Marcus Rashford strike gives United a 1-0 advantage from first-leg
- Game could be make or break for United’s season
Jose Mourinho has taken a calculated gamble that Manchester United will win the Europa League this season and in order to do so he has all but given up hope of finishing in the Premier League’s top four.
While he is an experienced manager, it is unlikely that he has ever attracted such scrutiny as he does while in the Manchester United hot seat.
Everything from his tactics, substitutions, transfer policies and demeanour on the touchline are now being analysed and written about.
How he lines his team up has prompted a stirring debate between Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville on Sky’s Monday Night Football programme and Sky produced a graphic showing how this season is his worst set of results against other top six sides in his career.
In so many ways the Europa League games that remain this season are reminiscent of Alex Ferguson’s 1990 FA Cup run, every game is one the team should win but is weighed in expectation.
Add to that many outside of Old Trafford are waiting to see Mourinho fail. Perhaps some Manchester United fans are too.
Rashford Was The Key Man In Spain
Marcus Rashford was the difference between Celta Vigo and Manchester United in the first leg.
A goal scored that evoked memories of David Beckham in his prime added to the hope Manchester United fans have for this kid.
Fifteen months after his debut he has scored great goals, tap ins, been played on the wing and been left on the bench.
However there is no doubting his talent and in many ways Manchester United are blessed to have him to replace the injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Rashford was nineteen months old when Manchester United won the treble in 1999 and now so much of the club’s success depends on him.
Both Teams Suffered Defeats At The Weekend
Since the first leg both United and Celta have lost games away from home scoring none and conceding five between them.
Quite clearly reaching the final of this tournament is a higher priority than domestic league games for both. Celta have scored just two goals in their last six games while United have found the net six times.
At home in the Europa League this season, United’s form has been poles apart with either a comfortable high scoring win to nil or a tense one goal win being the norm. Thursday night, expect the latter.
Pogba, Rashford And Valencia All Set To Return
Mourinho will most likely start Pogba, Rashford and Valencia having not started any of them at the Emirates Stadium.
Many players from Kasper Schmeichel to Sergio Aguero have been linked with summer moves to Old Trafford so with this uncertainty looming over players like Wayne Rooney, Marouane Fellaini, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, it is difficult to see where United will pluck a leader from to see the club through to the final and then win it.
The club is crying out for one player to show the passion and desire that you see in the away end when United play. Ander Herrera has shown this in patches this season but when you see the captaincy being rotated between Carrick, Rooney and Herrera the message is clear – a leader in the Roy Keane mould is needed.
While Paul Pogba will no doubt prove his worth more next season than this, he does not boss the midfield like Keane or Robson did in their prime, nor does he display the same football brain as Scholes.
But he is a superb passer who can lay on assists for his team mates and if United can play to his strengths on Thursday night, passage to the final should be secured. Can he take the responsibility now and show the world his worth?
Berizzo Still Confident His Team Can Progress
Celta coach Eduardo Berizzo believes his side can still go through to the final. His stated plan of giving Iago Aspas more support in order to get goals suggests that Celta will attack from the off.
Mourinho is a veteran of semi-final wins but if he chooses to see this game out with a low scoring contest then many will jump on the Jamie Carragher bandwagon assessing him as a failure.
In their last six Champions League semi-finals Manchester United have scored twenty one goals and have been involved in cracking contests for the neutral.
The comeback against Juventus in 1999, the destruction of Arsenal in 2009 and the hammering of Schalke in 2011 all seem distant days presently.
There was the 1-0 aggregate win over Barcelona in 2008 but given Barcelona’s line-up, most significantly Lionel Messi, perhaps the only way United were able to get through was to keep it tight and play for that moment of Paul Scholes magic.
It should not be forgotten though that in the Nou Camp United earned and missed a penalty.
Manchester United have often taken the game to their opponents in the last four of European tournaments as Real Madrid found to their cost in 1968.
Even when losing the 1997 Champions League semi final United were superb in their attacking football but simply couldn’t score against Borussia Dortmund.
The current offerings are based on a different model and the expectation is that Thursday night will be tense and will be focused on getting to the final at all costs. Is that the Manchester United way?
Will Mourinho Attack From The Off?
Should Mourinho let his team off the leash and get a goal up on the night then this semi-final could go the way of those from history.
Playing for Manchester United has always been about more than winning. Home or away Manchester United fans sing ‘We are the pride of all Europe, the cock of the North’.
Not even the most ardent United fan will suggest that the club is the Pride of Europe for winning the Europa League, but there is a responsibility on the players to get the ball down, pass it and entertain.
While this season has seen United more functional than flamboyant the team has carved out chance after chance in games but not taken them.
There has been talk of the cost of the current squad, talk of the outrageous transfer fees to come in the summer, but isn’t football still the game that makes us dream?
There is no bigger dream than for a young lad to grow up and play for his club in a final. Regardless of transfer fees, wages or image rights, football is eleven against eleven and may the best team win.
With that in mind, Mourinho will hopefully respond to Old Trafford and allow Lingard, Rashford and the rest of his charges off the loose and play like all those European Semi finals United have contested down through the years.
Verdict: United 3-1 Celta Vigo