Manchester United must defeat Sevilla to keep their momentum up under Jose Mourinho
While United fans are not expecting the club to win the tournament this season, being knocked out by the Spanish side in the last 16 would be considered a disappointment.
Manchester United left their mark in Sevilla after the opening leg of the Uefa Champions League game last month – and it was not positive, after a defensive performance which created few chances and attracted much criticism in Spain as well as in England.
The expectations created by United’s illustrious name and their roster of big name players far exceeded the actual level of their performance in Andalusia.
Sevilla certainly took advantage of United’s appeal by increasing their ticket prices to record levels – a decision which partly backfired. Sevilla did not sell out the home game and they also had to refund a portion from Tuesday's ticket prices to their home fans.
It is a big game, the most important of the season for United in a month where they are coming thick and fast.
United go into it in excellent form, having won three straight league games since their trip to Spain against Chelsea, Crystal Palace and on Saturday against a much-fancied to win Liverpool.
The mood in the camp is superb with two eagerly anticipated cup games at Old Trafford this week, with a quarter-final at home to Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday coming after this.
Sevilla, who were comfortably the better team in the first leg but who could not score, have been far less convincing domestically and have lost at home to Atletico Madrid and Valencia since playing United, though they have beaten struggling Malaga, plus Athletic Bilbao.
United fans have long known that Premier League title has gone and Manchester City’s excellence does not make things easier, but United have made progress from last season.
They might be a distant second to City but the 56 goals scored in 30 games is already more than they netted in the whole of last season. They need only six more points from their remaining eight games to achieve their highest points total since Sir Alex Ferguson's final championship winning season in 2013.
Fans do not expect to the team to lift a fourth Champions League/European Cup this season, but they do expect to advance beyond Sevilla and to put up a good show in the competition.
And, as Mourinho said before the away leg, the quarter-finals are where teams start to dream.
He has been there before and he knows the feeling. He has been there as an underdog with Porto and Inter Milan and won the competition with both.
Beating Chelsea and Liverpool has done wonders for the confidence of United’s players and fans. A late, great comeback against Crystal Palace, where the players surged into the away end to embrace with fans was reminiscent of the best of times under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Instead of conceding a late goal as United have done too many times this season, they showed their mettle with a winner at Selhurst Park.
The hard-won, but fragile optimism can easily be punctured. Be eliminated by Sevilla side and the flatness will return. Sevilla are not Barcelona or Real Madrid, but they should not be underestimated.
Their European pedigree is highlighted by winning the Uefa Cup in 2006 and 2007, and the competition rebranded as the Europa League three years on the trot between 2014 and 2016.
The challenge for Mourinho is to pass on his knowledge of how to handle the big occasions, especially the more inexperienced ones in his squad.
Mourinho’s continued criticism of the Old Trafford atmosphere has been effective. There are a myriad of reasons why the atmosphere has dipped not only at Old Trafford, but every Premier League ground, bar a few exceptions, and they are not always the fault of United fans.
On Saturday against Liverpool, it was impressive. Mourinho hopes for a repeat on Tuesday, for Old Trafford to be the “hell” he said it was when he brought his Porto team there in 2004.
Then Porto were drawn at home in the first leg at every stage and had to perform away. They did, and they won the competition.
When he next won it next with Inter Milan six years later in 2010, his team were again drawn at home in the first leg of each round as they eliminated Chelsea, CSKA Moscow and holders Barcelona before beating Bayern Munich in the final.
The strong point of that experienced side was his relationship with his players who adored him. “Mourinho was more than a father to me,” said Julio Cesar, the Brazilian goalkeeper.
The United players like and respect him too, while the Portuguese feels emboldened after signing an extended contract at a club he’s happy to be managing.
A goalless scoreline from the away leg always carries a risk and too many United fans remember going out to Monaco in 1998 after drawing the first leg 0-0 away, but United have scored plenty of early goals this season, including against Liverpool.
They have also come from behind in two of their previous three games, showing that this team has a fight some feared it was lacking.
Now they need to get past a competent Sevilla side who have never before reached this stage in Europe’s top competition.
Updated: March 12, 2018 07:16 PM