Rostov-on-Don: Jose Mourinho has admitted he may have to prioritise the Europa League over the Premier League as the best route to Champions League qualification if Manchester United overcome FC Rostov to reach the quarter-finals of Europe’s secondary club competition.
The United manager has insisted he will have to start thinking “really seriously” about the Europa League potentially offering a more viable passage into next season’s Champions League if they book their place in the last eight, given their top-four battles and an increasingly congested fixture list.
But Mourinho said he would only take such a decision in conjunction with the United hierarchy and claimed second place in the Premier League, let alone fourth, still remains in reach.
United’s fight for the top four suffered another blow Monday, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended for the forthcoming league games against Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion, as well as Monday’s FA Cup quarter-final against Chelsea, after the Swedish striker accepted a Football Association charge of violent conduct for elbowing Bournemouth defender Tyrone Mings.
Ibrahimovic was among the 20-man squad that flew to Russia Monday for the first leg of United’s Europa League round-of-16 tie against Rostov Thursday, when he is expected to start, and there was some good news for Mourinho, with forward Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who has missed the past two games with a hamstring injury, among the travelling party.
Yet captain Wayne Rooney and left-back Luke Shaw did not travel and nor did defender Eric Bailly, who is suspended after his red card against St-Etienne.
Rooney and Shaw, both of whom face uncertain futures at Old Trafford, started in Saturday’s 1-1 draw at home to Bournemouth.
“The Europa League is very difficult but it’s a target for us and if we beat Rostov and we find ourselves in the quarter-final, then we have to think really seriously about the Europa League because in this moment we are still in the last 16,” Mourinho said. “[With] the last 16 we are still far [from the final], but when a team get into the last eight and you go to the quarter-final draw, you smell the final. The quarter-final — you smell the final and then in a certain period of the season I have to analyse my team, the players, the condition of everyone and I have to make choices. I have to make choices, but choices that I would always share with my owners, with my board.”
Mourinho is under no illusions about the challenge a 5,000-mile round trip to Rostov-on-Don, a port city in Russia’s southern federal district, presents and that task will not be made any easier by the poor state of the pitch at the Olimp-2 stadium. Ivan Daniliants, the Rostov coach, has warned that United may be in for a shock.
“The pitch is the same for everyone but it will still be a problem,” said Daniliants. “In the final of the League Cup [at Wembley], Man United played on an ideal lawn — it was like a carpet. Here, they will be surprised.”
Mourinho has fielded strong sides in all competitions and will do so against Rostov. “For now it’s play against Rostov, play against Chelsea, play against Rostov again and then let’s see how we are in all the competitions and try to make the right decisions.”
— The Telegraph Group Ltd, London 2017
Europa League last 16 fixtures (Kick-offs five past midnight UAE time unless stated):
Celta Vigo (ESP) v Krasnodar (RUS)
Apoel Nicosia (CYP) v Anderlecht (BEL) 10pm
Schalke 04 (GER) v Borussia Mvnchengladbach (GER)
Lyon (FRA) v Roma (ITA)
Rostov (RUS) v Manchester United (ENG) 10pm
Olympiakos (GRE) v Besiktas (TUR)
Gent (BEL) v Genk (BEL)
FC Copenhagen (DEN) v Ajax (NED) 10pm
1st leg, March 9; 2nd leg, March 16