Anthony Martial kisses the UEFA Europa League trophy

Opinion: Europa League our best chance of success

Friday 07 February 2020 10:41

Ask most Reds about their dream ending to the 2019/20 season, and I’d wager that the overwhelming majority will feed you two outcomes.

The first involves Manchester United winning a trophy and finishing inside the top four.
The second imagines Liverpool’s lead at the top of the Premier League collapsing in tragicomic fashion. (And anyone bar Manchester City stepping forth to take advantage.)
But, putting the respective fates of Liverpool and City aside, there’s a way that United can achieve both of our ambitions without even finishing within the top four: winning the Europa League. 
Relive our 2017 Europa League triumph Video

Relive our 2017 Europa League triumph

See the goals against Ajax that completed the club's all-time set of major trophies, in Stockholm...

And, I would argue, that competition represents our best opportunity for success during the final few months of 2020.
It worked for Jose Mourinho’s team three years ago and, if we’re realistic, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team currently six points adrift of the top-four spots, consistency in the league could prove tough to clasp, especially with key figures Scott McTominay, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford still some way off returning.
Crucially, both the Europa League and the FA Cup give the Norwegian a bit of time to play with. If we can negotiate Club Brugge and Derby County in late February and early March, respectively, it gives time to rehabilitate those on the sidelines for the more severe challenges that are likely to lie ahead in both competitions.
These next few weeks could also prove helpful for the Reds’ two January signings, Bruno Fernandes and Odion Ighalo. It can take new players time to adjust, and we might have to wait to see their best.
Europa League success in 2017 proved a false dawn. Seven of the XI that started in Stockholm against Ajax are no longer at the club (though Chris Smalling could return next summer), but Solskjaer’s team is young and hungry. 
A better comparison might be made with the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup, five of whom were 26 or under: Lee Sharpe (19), Paul Ince (23), Denis Irwin (25), Gary Pallister (25), Clayton Blackmore (26).
Football history tells us that successful teams need to feel the scent of triumph upon them early: Ferguson’s first great team did so in 1990 and 1991, and his last truly great side did similarly with the 2006 League Cup. 
The 2006 League Cup was a first triumph for the team built around Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.
But leaving aside the importance of laying a foundation for future success, and our momentary injury issues, I believe that from an on-field footballing perspective, the Europa League – more than the FA Cup – suits Solskjaer’s team.
Unfortunately, Liverpool and Manchester City are, at the present moment, probably the two strongest teams in Europe. And both are still in the FA Cup.
We’ve lost only two of five games against that pair this season but, let’s be honest, facing either of them in a semi-final or final is not something many Reds would relish – if only for health reasons.
How we beat Brugge in 2015 Video

How we beat Brugge in 2015

Watch highlights of United's only previous visit to Club Brugge, our next Europa League opponents...

The Europa League, on the other hand, contains plenty of quality, but of a more manageable variety.  The last 32 offers a multitude of sides comfortable in possession, that will try to bring the game to United and allow us more opportunities to counter-attack than the majority of Premier League clubs.
We’ve conceded in just one of our six matches in the competition this season, and kept a clean sheet in seven of our last 10 games in the Europa League at Old Trafford, dating back to 2016.
Bar that match in Astana – where we conceded twice, with an extremely young side – we’re unbeaten for over three years.
Of course, it’s still a sizeable task to win this year’s edition, with a relatively young team, injuries to key personnel and estimable opponents littering the draw for the knockout rounds. 
But, given the added benefit of Champions League qualification should we succeed, reclaiming the pot we seized three years ago in Sweden should be right at the top of the club’s to-do list.

The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.

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