With Manchester United starting the day six points and an inferior goal difference behind fourth placed Manchester City and all of the top four sides facing each other this weekend, it was an opportunity for United to make up some ground on the teams above them. Second from bottom Sunderland were not exactly seen as lambs to the slaughter, but certainly a level of opposition that should be dispatched, with the Red Devils finding some form in recent weeks.
As it transpired, Sunderland built on their unlikely point from last weekend and showed the character, desire and determination required if they are to stand a chance of avoiding relegation from the Premier League. For Louis Van Gaal, it’s the all too familiar fragile situation where a Premier League defeat reignites the pressure that had quelled a little following their recent upturn in results. With just 12 Premier League games to go this season, the points gap and significantly inferior goal difference, a top four finish looks an increasingly unlikely target.
Failure to finish in the top four does not necessarily mean an end to the dreams of Champions League football next season at Old Trafford, with the winners of the Europa League now also being awarded a spot. So, attention will soon switch to United’s Europa League match on Thursday against FC Midtjylland. The Danish Superliga side are third in their domestic table and finished a distant second to Napoli in their Europa League group. They were knocked out of the Champions League qualifying stage by Cypriot side APOEL and are unlikely to pose much of a threat to United, but they can by no means afford to take them too lightly, given the increasing importance of the competition. Midtjylland have not played a competitive match since early December and the Danish league does not resume until the end of February, so whilst Midtjylland will be fresh, their lack of competitive football will likely catch up with them later in the match. Considering this, despite having to make an away trip to Scandanavia, Van Gaal’s men should more than enough to do the job before the second leg at Old Trafford.
Sandwiched in between those ties is an FA Cup clash with League One strugglers Shrewsbury Town. The fact the game is at New Meadow does give Shrewsbury hope of an upset, especially after beating Championship side Sheffield Wednesday there in the last round. Realistically, it should be a potentially tricky tie that United negotiate successfully and put them a step closer to winning a trophy this season. I wrote here last month that Manchester United were one of a few Premier League sides that desperately needed a good FA Cup run and to ideally win it, particularly manager Louis Van Gaal. Finishing the season with a trophy would be a positive end to a predominantly disappointing season and Van Gaal’s best hope of keeping his job.
After the Sunderland defeat, Van Gaal admitted in an interview that it would be “very difficult” for United finish in the top four, he went on to say “After this match, the Europa League is our best route, but it will not be easy because there are so many good teams.”
So, with hopes fading through the Premier League campaign, it makes sense for focus and attention to concentrate on the upcoming cup games. The Dutchman will certainly not consider the Europa League the unwanted distraction that so many Premier League sides have done in recent years. Diverting attention away from the Premier League to the FA Cup and Europa League will no doubt and understandably be seen as risky, but the risk to reward factor is worth the gamble when everything is taken into consideration.
Both the FA Cup and the Europa League are competitions not regarded as highly as they once were in England, but both are increasingly vital for Manchester United and finals at Wembley Stadium and St Jakob-Park in Basel in May have to be the revised targets for Van Gaal’s side. For this season to now be considered anything like a success for Manchester United, it has to be cup or bust.