Manchester United visit Sevilla as favourites but with season hanging in the balance
It will soon be a decade since Manchester United won the Uefa Champions League on a memorable night in Moscow against Chelsea.
Jose Mourinho had left Chelsea earlier that season, so he didn't have the privilege of leading out the team he had built in the Russian capital, but Chelsea and United were the best two teams in Europe at that time, driving each other on in the Premier League and cup competitions.
United reached the final in 2009 and 2011, and reaching three Champions League finals in four years is something the club are now barely credited for. There are few expectations of a repeat this season.
On Wednesday, United play in Seville - where Mourinho won his first European trophy with Porto in 2003 - in a last 16 first leg game against the sixth best team in Spain this season.
United, second in the Premier League and with the return leg at Old Trafford where they have won all three European games this season, are favourites to beat a Sevilla side who have conceded five goals on four occasions this season.
However, United’s season hangs in the balance. Sixteen points behind Manchester City, fans know that the Premier League title has long been lost. United have reached the last eight of the FA Cup and a second FA Cup in three years would be significant, while a runner-up league finish would be seen as progress in Jose Mourinho’s second season.
But this is Manchester United, one of the biggest three clubs in the world, one which should be competing for the Champions League. Even the players know they are some way off the level required to be the best in Europe, but joy can come from other places.
City being knocked out of the FA Cup by Wigan Athletic on Monday has cheered United fans. It means their neighbours can’t become the second English team to lift the Champions League, FA Cup and Premier League treble. City have never won Europe’s top honour and with their team so dominant this season, United fans were becoming nervous. When all is not well in the present, fans hold onto the past.
The fortunes of another club shouldn’t impact so directly on the mood of another’s fans, but they do. United haven’t been able to land a punch on City this season, so take satisfaction when others do.
Fans found it hilarious that Pep Guardiola was so angered after the game, that City will seek an explanation for Wigan fans getting onto the pitch at the end to celebrate Will Grigg’s goal. United required no such investigation when Bristol City fans invaded the pitch after knocking them out of the League Cup in December.
City losing in Sunday’s League Cup final against Arsenal would be a double bonus. This is the Manchester rivalry at full throttle – and City fans will be urging Sevilla, who have never reached the Champions League last eight, in Andalusia.
And, when a question was put to a group of fans of Seville’s other club, Real Betis, before Sunday’s game against Real Madrid about who they would prefer to win, every one said ‘Manchester’. That’s United.
United’s players have to concentrate on their own job. While the team have been second for most of the season, they are only four points clear of Tottenham Hotspur in the non-Champions League fifth place. Mourinho’s men have lost their last two away league games; Paul Pogba is not playing well and has been dropped. He also missed Saturday’s game at Huddersfield Town due to illness, but trained in Manchester before flying to Seville.
Pogba’s current relationship could be better with his manager, but it’s no big deal. Players and managers don't see eye to eye all the time and United have invested too much in both for them not to find a solution. Mourinho is the main man at the club and he’s feeling especially satisfied since signing a new contract, but Pogba is his main man on the field. The pair can help each other, starting in Wednesday in southern Spain.
“He’s a really good player,” said Sevilla manager Vincenzo Montella, who came up against Pogba as manager of Fiorentina, Sampdoria and AC Milan. “He had great success (in Italy). He’s really important. He has strength, technical ability and can score. He’s an incredible player, a marvellous player. I hope that he won’t be able to play tomorrow.”
He’s unlikely to get his wish.