Manchester United face crucial weeks ahead

Feb 21, 2017
Jose Mourinho's Manchester United face crucial weeks ahead as they fight in four fronts for glory - three cup competitions and a Champions League spot.
Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United face crucial weeks ahead as they fight in four fronts for glory – three cup competitions and a Champions League spot.

For the first time in what will be their 19th cup match this season, Manchester United have drawn an opponent against whom they’ll be an underdog.

Chelsea away in the FA Cup sixth round will be very difficult, the toughest of all the possible draws.

United reached Sunday’s EFL final as continual favourites through the rounds, including against Manchester City, for the Blues fielded a weaker side.

While Europa League games in Fenerbahçe and Feyenoord were tricky and led to defeats, United had six group games and faultless home form to qualify from their group.

There will be no such second chance at Stamford Bridge.

For the first time, FA Cup replays at the sixth-round stage have been scrapped. United manager Jose Mourinho was happy with this.

“I also think that FA Cup replays should end, which they’re doing this season for the quarterfinal,” he told ESPN FC. “And I would try to find a solution where the teams who play in Europe join the domestic cups at a later stage.”

United needed a sixth-round replay against West Ham last season to progress to the semifinals, and while there would be no time for a replay this season, United have lost the option of trying to hold Chelsea and get them back to Old Trafford, where they’d probably draw again give their league form.

United’s last league defeat was a 4-0 hammering at Stamford Bridge in October, when much of the mainstream media rounded on Mourinho, but United’s away fans did not.

Chelsea are the best team in England at present, and United will go into the match having likely played a Europa League game the previous Thursday.

They could be in Istanbul, Krasnodar or Giurgiu before facing Chelsea away three days later.

Chelsea, of course, have no such European distractions.

United, who have won the cup a joint record (with Arsenal) 12 times but have never managed to retain it, have been fortuitous with cup draws in recent seasons.

United won the FA Cup final last season by drawing Sheffield United, Derby County, Shrewsbury Town, West Ham, Everton and Crystal Palace.

The run-up to Sunday’s EFL final saw games against Northampton, Man City at home, West Ham at home and Hull City in the semifinal.

In the FA Cup, United have played three Championship sides, two of them struggling ones.

Even the Champions League group draw last season wasn’t that tough, with games against Wolfsburg, PSV Eindhoven and CSKA Moscow.

At least Mourinho has overcome the farce of losing at home to lower-league teams, as United did against Middlesbrough last term.

But that luck in the cup has since run dry.

Man United needed star turns off the bench from Ibrahimovic and Pogba vs. Blackburn, but the fans weren’t bothered.

United were eliminated from both domestic cup competitions at Stamford Bridge in 2012-13, Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season.

The 5-4 United loss in the League Cup was epic and assisted by one of the best atmospheres this decade from 6,000 raucous travelling fans.

It was also Ryan Giggs’ last great game for United.

It will be just as loud in a couple of weeks as it was at Ewood Park on Sunday, when 7,283 Reds made a mighty noise on a dank, dark and drizzly afternoon by the East Lancashire moors.

Given the proximity to Manchester and the large ticket allocation, Blackburn is always a favourite away game for United fans.

Blackburn started well; their opening goal would have stood out in the Premier League, where they last played five years ago.

Resting David de Gea, Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, United laboured — though Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s pass to set up Marcus Rashford’s equaliser was magical.

As was Paul Pogba’s for Ibrahimovic to score the 75th-minute winner when a dreaded replay loomed.

It was to Blackburn’s credit that United needed to bring their biggest names off the bench.

Mkhitaryan, then Pogba and Ibrahimovic: three close season signings who prove you get what you pay for.

As the Blackburn fans contemplated a key trip to their division’s smallest club, Burton Albion, on Friday, the travelling Red hoards hollered “Wemberlee! Wemberlee! We’re the famous Man United and we’re going to Wemberlee!”

Mourinho again showed his appreciation for the huge away support he hasn’t had at his former clubs.

United didn’t visit Wembley once between August 2013 and April 2016.

It will be six visits in just over a year if this season’s FA Cup final is reached – and it’s a big if.

There are 35,000 going to Wembley this Sunday for the EFL Cup final.

But first, the small matter of Saint Etienne away on Wednesday.

It’s exciting, it’s nonstop and it’s enjoyable.

Everything that Manchester United weren’t last season. – ESPN