Manchester United’s 21-game unbeaten run will face its toughest examination against league leaders Chelsea this weekend, but should Jose Mourinho prioritise the Europa League over a top four finish in the Premier League?
However, should Mourinho look at the bigger picture and target next week’s Europa League quarter-final against Anderlecht as a more crucial game?
United have not lost in the Premier League since that chastening 4-0 defeat at the hands of Chelsea in October, but it does not tell the whole story.
In that run of 21 games unbeaten United have drawn 10 of those games meaning it is the least productive long unbeaten run in Premier League history. United’s failure to turn some of those draws into wins has prevented them from challenging Chelsea in the title race with United a massive 18 points behind the leaders.
Qualification for next season’s Champions League is very much in United’s grasp and they have two options to achieve this through finishing in the top four or winning the Europa League. United currently sit in fifth spot in the table four points behind Man City in the race for Europe’s premier club competition, but with a game in hand on their rivals.
However, looking at United’s run-in with games still to come against Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham so winning the Europa League surely represents their best chance of being in the Champions League next season.
Mourinho claims United can afford to miss out on qualifying for the Champions League and still be able to compete with the best, but it would be hard to think United’s powerbrokers agree.
Mourinho was brought in to get United back challenging for the game’s biggest prizes after three difficult seasons following the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson and although the Community Shield and EFL Cup are already in the Old Trafford trophy cabinet missing out the Champions League would represent failure in Mourinho’s first season in charge.
Missing out on the Champions League would hurt United in the pocket, but it would also harm their chances of signing the best players around in the summer if their rivals are able to offer transfer targets the opportunity to play in Europe’s elite competition.
The Swede has quickly established himself as United’s talisman since his arrival in the summer and with doubts surrounding his future if United do not return to Europe’s top table it would come as a body blow to lose the influential Ibrahimovic after just 12 months.
Mourinho would love nothing more than halting Chelsea’s charge to the title on Sunday and keep alive their top four hopes alive, but realistically the Europa League should be the Portuguese’s primary focus right now.