So it turns out Jose Mourinho really wasn’t bluffing.
He really is putting all his eggs in one Europa League-shaped basket.
And really, who can blame him?
What’s clear is that the Portuguese’s first season in charge hasn’t gone entirely to plan.
Mourinho has gone from bullishly claiming that he’s aiming for the title to hoping for Champions League qualification through a Europa League win.
Ultimately, regardless of the trials and tribulations that Manchester United have gone through this year, only one thing matters, and that is playing Champions League football next season.
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) May 7, 2017
Naturally, Mourinho would have preferred league position to have cemented Champions League for United, but before Sunday’s loss to Arsenal, it seemed that even confident Jose wasn’t convinced that this was a realistic option.
Before the game, United lay four points shy of Manchester City in fourth, and four points shy of Champions League qualification.
A cursory glance at City’s final three fixtures would have betrayed the fact that they were all eminently and predictably winnable – Leicester and West Brom at home, and Watford away.
The likelihood of City slipping up was slim to none, and ever the pragmatist, Jose understood this.
He understood that even if United had beaten Arsenal to go one point behind City, they would still need Guardiola’s side to do them a favour, and that’s if United won the rest of their games; a big ask when Tottenham away is your very next fixture.
Fourth position, and Champions League qualification off the back of it, was unlikely, and as Jose likes to do, he played the numbers rather than taking a gamble.
— ABC Grandstand (@abcgrandstand) May 7, 2017
What was likely – in fact, a whole lot more likely – was United’s progress to the Europa League final, and victory in that final, and what’s more, that sequence of events would result in the same end point – Champions League qualification.
So what did Jose do? He hedged his bets, making 8 chances against Arsenal and losing the game 2-0, but in so doing, he protected his star players ahead of a clash with Celta Vigo next week.
Win that game, and United reach the final, probably against Ajax, and will be strong favourites to win the game. After all, Jose is a specialist in cup competitions.
It may seem counterintuitive for Mourinho to make so many changes, but he really has played the numbers here. The key now will be whether his gamble pays off.
If it does, we’ll be looking at a potential for five Premier League teams to be in Europe’s premier cup competition next season – not bad when you consider how dire the English teams have played in recent years in Europe.
Jose Mourinho tells coaching staff he’s ready to start Sergio Romero if Man United reach Europa League finalhttps://t.co/m5cRV0zOq9
— Mirror Football (@MirrorFootball) May 6, 2017