After unfulfilling draws against Stoke City, Burnley, Arsenal, West Ham United and, most recently, Everton, there are a lot of Manchester United fans who have already resigned themselves to another season without a Premier League title.
Never in the modern era have United gone four years without lifting the championship trophy, with the last such run coming in Sir Alex Ferguson’s formative spell at the club before the Premier League came into being.
But, more than that, United are not even so much as challenging for titles at present and have started the 2016-17 campaign so unconvincingly that a large number of supporters are even questioning whether a tilt at the Europa League title might be their best route to next season’s Champions League.
Following Sunday’s late disappointment at Goodison Park, United boast only five wins from 14 league matches so far under Jose Mourinho and find themselves nine points off the pace set by the top four. Not only that, but the team in fifth are Tottenham, who themselves harbour realistic hopes of chasing down any faltering front-runners.
The gloom settling over the pubs and clubs of Manchester has been tempered somewhat by talk of a Europa League run since the secondary competition now dangles the carrot of a Champions League place for the winners, yet it remains far too early for United to begin switching their attentions to what is realistically a crap-shoot of a tournament and abandoning all hope of finishing in the first four in England.
For a start, United have yet to qualify from the group stage of the Europa League, with Thursday’s trip to Odessa to face Zorya Luhansk needing to end in a draw or better for progress from Group A to be secured. Even then, the line-up for the last 32 has yet to be established, with an octet of Champions League third-place finishers to be teleported in ahead of Monday’s draw.
Throw in the very uncertainty of knockout football, and there are far too many variables at play for United to start picking their favoured XI on Thursday nights without paying due care to their Premier League plight. A sudden focus on the Europa League could all begin to unravel on the back of a single defeat, whereas in the league they have more opportunities to recover from setbacks.
Even their current deficit from the top four is a far less daunting challenge than the twists and turns to come in their European campaign. Only 14 games have been played, with 24 remaining and a huge number of unforeseeable changes to come at the top of the table. As such, Mourinho has every right to continue tinkering with his line-up on Thursdays while throwing his favoured side into battle each weekend.
Following the clash with Zorya, United will have two months free of continental concerns and, but for the two-legged EFL Cup semi-final clash with Hull City, they will have only weekend football to occupy their minds. That should give Mourinho more than enough time to get the Premier League house in order before they return to European duty in February, assuming they get the point they need in Odessa.
Manchester United didn’t get to be the force they are as a club by giving up on more than 60 per cent of their league campaign in order to play a game of chance in cup competitions they shouldn’t even be in in the first place. A string of victories in the league would quickly put them back in a decent position and dispel any thoughts of Europa League football.
Only if they were to reach the quarter or semi-finals would the Europa League truly deserve to win over some of their focus, and the very notion that United could start to think of the booby-prize European crown as being more important to their season than the Premier League needs to be quickly responded to with all the scorn it deserves.