ANDERLECHT, Belgium — It’s safe to assume that Jose Mourinho would have had Manchester United’s Old Trafford clash with Chelsea this Sunday highlighted as a massive day from the moment the Premier League fixtures were published last June. However, the United manager would not have expected the encounter with his former club to end up as nothing more than an inconvenience sandwiched in between the two biggest games of his team’s season.
After seeing United throw away a 1-0 lead to draw 1-1 against Anderlecht in Brussels in Thursday’s Europa League quarterfinal first leg, next week’s return fixture has unquestionably become the most important game in the club’s season.
Without a doubt, Mourinho will want to halt Chelsea’s surge to the Premier League title by guiding United to victory Sunday. A win would also keep alive United’s faint hopes of Champions League qualification through a top-four finish, but the reality is that the return game against Anderlecht is now the only show in town for Mourinho and his players.
Mourinho began the campaign insisting United would challenge for the title, but after starting the campaign with three successive league wins, a derby defeat against Manchester City in September set the team on a downward spiral that sees them now yo-yoing between fifth and sixth position and rarely looking like they can climb into the top four.
United currently trail City by four points and have a game in hand in the race for the top four, but Mourinho admitted he cannot make wholesale changes against Chelsea to prepare his players for the second leg against Anderlecht.
“If we arrive at the situation where, mathematically, we cannot finish top four, it is easy: we rest [the players],” Mourinho said. “But while we have a chance to finish in top four, we have to go for it.”
Mourinho and United are caught in a kind of limbo in that they accept that a top-four finish is unlikely simply because of their heavy fixture workload and the games within it, including trips to City, Arsenal and Tottenham. They have a mountain to climb in the Premier League, and it is being made harder to scale because of the need to focus on their Thursday nights in the Europa League. If they had just one competition on which to concentrate, perhaps fresh legs and minds would carry them to success, but overwork is leading to mental and physical fatigue, and that showed against Anderlecht.
United lacked an edge to their game, with midfielder Michael Carrick insisting they had been “sloppy.”
“It’s frustrating,” Carrick told BT Sport. “We were so in control but got sloppy. We have to kill teams off. We should have won that game. They had one chance and scored a header. We need to be more ruthless; it’s as simple as that. We were too comfortable.
“It’s not the end of the world, but we are better than that. It’s that little edge that makes the difference in the end.”
Mourinho echoed Carrick’s comments but admitted that the outcome was not wholly negative. “The result is positive,” Mourinho said. “To play at home with an advantage is good, but I think the result should be much better, and we can only blame ourselves.
“We had an easy game to play in the second half, and we didn’t play in an attacking sense. Too many sloppy decisions, sloppy use of the ball, and we gave them the chance to make a counterattack. If I was a defender in that team, I would be upset because we missed many half-chances. Sometimes you take a second touch, sometimes not, but the decisions were all wrong.
“This is what has happened all season. We have had chances and not converted them.”
Mourinho’s last sentence sums up United’s campaign and explains why they go into the Chelsea game with their eyes on something else. On so many occasions, United have dominated games and failed to kill off their opponents, emerging with draws when victories have been required. (Thursday night was their 14th draw of the season in all competitions and their sixth game to finish 1-1 after United took the lead.)
The constant dropping of points, two at a time, has left United marooned outside the top four in the league, and against Anderlecht, their inability to finish the tie off means they will face an anxious second leg in Manchester next week.
United’s home record in Europe this season has been impressive, with Mourinho’s players winning every game so far at Old Trafford in the competition. As such, they will go into the return game as heavy favourites, expecting to progress to the semifinals and move to within 180 minutes of next month’s final in Stockholm. But United will suffer the consequences of lacking a killer touch sooner or later, and it would be disastrous for their season if that backlash comes with a defeat or high-scoring draw against the Belgians next Thursday.
While Mourinho is right to insist that Sunday is just as important as Thursday, deep down he already knows which game really matters.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_