Why United's run demands immense credit
And breathe. Manchester United's exhausting schedule since the World Cup finals takes a pause, even if some of our players will be away on international duty, representing their respective countries.
When events in Qatar concluded, with Lisandro Martinez's Argentina beating Raphael Varane's France in the final, it was straight back to action for the Reds, with a midweek Carabao Cup tie against Burnley first on the agenda.
We were facing an incredibly tough Europa League play-off after being drawn with runaway La Liga leaders Barcelona and, of course, our Emirates FA Cup campaign was yet to start but we had been paired with another Premier League side in Everton.
The aim to secure Champions League football next season via a top-four place, while maintaining the charge in the other three competitions was, of course, very high on any list of objectives, although manager Erik ten Hag has always been keen to stress the most important game is always the next one.
Well, we rattled off seven straight wins in all competitions after the restart, a run culminating in a memorable 2-1 derby-day triumph over Manchester City at Old Trafford.
A rearranged game, at Crystal Palace, broke the winning streak, only due to an injury-time equaliser from Michael Olise, and a booking in the Selhurst Park contest also deprived us of the services of Casemiro for the away game at league leaders Arsenal, when another goal at the death, this time by Eddie Nketiah, cost us a point.
Thankfully, these morale-denting late setbacks were quickly put behind us, hinting at the fortitude of the squad. Reading were brushed aside in the FA Cup, as were Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup, to set up a Wembley date with Newcastle United.
Although two points were dropped in the 2-2 home draw with Leeds United, in another postponed fixture rescheduled for a midweek slot, the Reds did come from two goals down to maintain our unbeaten home record since 8 September, when Real Sociedad won 1-0 in the Europa League. For good measure, we faced the Yorkshiremen again within a matter of days and pulled off a 2-0 triumph at Elland Road, always a hostile place to go.
Then it was out to Spain to slug out a thoroughly entertaining 2-2 draw with Barcelona, before, a week later, a night to savour at Old Trafford, knocking the Catalan giants out with a comeback 2-1 success, and a statement of intent that will have sent shockwaves across Europe. The boss is on record as saying he wants his team to be able to compete with the best sides in the world and this was proof we are capable of that.
We followed this up by achieving one of the season's prime objectives, when winning silverware by lifting the Carabao Cup, courtesy of the 2-0 victory over Newcastle. The first trophy available to Ten Hag was secured, against tough opponents who had a full week to prepare for the final, and yet the first-half goals by Casemiro and Marcus Rashford ensured a largely stress-free big day in the capital.
Whether the emotion and effort required in winning the cup had any adverse effect is up for debate, but we looked on the brink of an FA Cup exit to more top-flight opponents in West Ham United in our next fixture, rallying again to instead see off David Moyes's men 3-1 with two late strikes, by Alejandro Garnacho and Fred. Nobody wants to make any excuses for what followed, at Liverpool, but the heavy defeat would prove to be one of only two losses in this arduous run, with the other coming at the Emirates Stadium.
There was a major inquest in the media, with the team's mentality being questioned and individuals also criticised. It was probably a positive that a game would inevitably quickly follow, as we have played every single midweek since just before Christmas, but when visitors Real Betis levelled on the night in the Europa League, it was another huge test of character. It was passed with flying colours, a much-respected Spanish side were beaten 4-1, to get one foot in the quarter-finals and this was a scoreline that should not be underestimated.
A first-half red card for Casemiro meant we faced a difficult task in breaking down Southampton and had to settle for a 0-0 draw, amid more suggestions the Reds were running out of steam, towards the end of the exhausting programme. The Europa League round-of-16 job was completed in Seville, with a professional 1-0 victory, before flying back to Manchester to prepare for another cup clash.
Fulham looked in great shape and well prepared for the FA Cup last-eight tie, and probably deserved to go in front after the interval. Cue the prospect of a fortnight of much analysis and possibly doom-mongering about how United's campaign would ultimately pan out, with Newcastle United putting real pressure on third spot in the Premier League table with a late victory at Nottingham Forest on Friday.
However, as was the case before the break for the World Cup, we finished on a high against Fulham, earning a 3-1 victory as the Cottagers went down to nine men and were no match for the Reds in the end.
So where does that leave us? From the 25 games crammed in between 21 December and now, a record of 19 wins, four draws and two defeats. Two of the draws came on the road, one at the Nou Camp, and one of the home ones was, as previously mentioned, when we were down to 10 men for a large chunk of the game against Southampton. The losses were at Arsenal and Liverpool.
The season's first available silverware has already been paraded at Old Trafford and is in the bag. A place in the top four is still very much in our hands, as we sit third, with Southampton's late equaliser at the weekend preventing Tottenham moving above us. There is all to play for, in this regard, and some will point to other rivals not having such a hectic schedule as a possible factor in the run-in, but United will be pulling out all the stops to safely navigate the remaining 12 games to seal Champions League football in 2023/24.
There is another route to that goal, of course, by winning the Europa League. Our quarter-final contest is over two legs against Sevilla, another La Liga side, and one with an incredible record in the competition. In terms of the FA Cup, Brighton & Hove Albion will be formidable opponents at Wembley, with Manchester City facing Sheffield United in the other semi-final.
If there is any time for reflection at all during this international pause, the main take is this: Manchester United are continuing to fight on all fronts and that is of immense credit to the manager and his players. Anfield aside, there is not a lot more than could have been asked for when we embarked on this taxing period.
The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.