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 cup competition.
he 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 on Tuesday, 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 on Tuesday for the first leg of United’s Europa League Round of 16 tie against Rostov on Thursday, when he is expected to start upfront, 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 Saint-Etienne. Rooney and Shaw, both of whom face uncertain futures at Old Trafford, started in Saturday’s 1-1 draw at home to Bournemouth but they were also left out of the squad for the away leg of the Round of 32 tie against Saint-Etienne last month.
“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 [away 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 an 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, whose side won 6-0 away to Tom Tomsk in their last outing in the Russian Premier League. “In the final of the League Cup [at Wembley], Man United played on an ideal lawn – it was like a carpet. When they arrive here, they will be surprised.”
Mourinho has fielded strong sides in all competitions this season and will do so against Rostov. But the draw against Bournemouth has left United trailing fourth placed Liverpool by three points, albeit with a game in hand, and Manchester City and Spurs by six and seven points respectively while facing a backlog of fixtures following the postponement of league games against City and Southampton.
Rostov is the second of five games in 16 days, which follows a similarly taxing run of four matches in 11 days, and Mourinho is prepared, if necessary, to make some tough choices, even though he believes a top two finish remains achievable in the Premier League.
“For now it’s just to 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,” he said. “To finish second [in the Premier League] is better than to finish third and to finish third is better than fourth and fourth is obviously better than not being in the top four and not going to the Champions League. The second position is very difficult but it’s very possible. First is impossible. Second is possible and we have to fight for it.”
United fans travelling to Russia have already been warned not to wear club colours amid hooliganism fears in Rostov. Outbreaks of violence at Russian Premier League games over the weekend highlighted the problem and Britain’s leading officer on football policing warned on Tuesday that he could offer no reassurances around supporter safety at next year’s World Cup in the country.
“I would love to be able to say, come and have a great time, you’ll be in perfect safety but I am not in that position to give that message,” assistant chief constable Mark Roberts said.
In an added twist, Uefa also confirmed on Tuesday that Rostov had agreed not to train on the pitch at the stadium on Wednesday in order to protect the patchy surface. The Russians will instead train at the training ground behind the stadium.