There is one possibility, floated in the presence of José Mourinho on Wednesday, that would mean a bittersweet subplot for Manchester United should their status as the only English team left in European competition stretch all the way to the final of the Europa League.
What better way, after all, for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to choreograph his own farewell than a European final at the Friends Arena in Stockholm, the stadium where a statue of the Swede is being erected? “For Zlatan it would be fantastic to play the final in Stockholm, in his country,” Mourinho agreed. “It would be beautiful.”
There was a similar debate in 2002 when Sir Alex Ferguson – described in one newspaper at the time as The Man Who Can’t Retire – was trying to reach a Champions League final at Hampden Park in Glasgow. In the end it was hypothetical, United losing on away goals in their semi-final against Bayer Leverkusen. Yet Mourinho is already daring to think about being in Sweden on 24 May.
“It will be the perfect end to the season,” he said. “A difficult season, lots of matches, trying to build a team, trying to recover a certain mentality, trying to finish the season playing a European final. It will be the perfect finale for Manchester United.”
First things first, however, they have to see off Anderlecht in the quarter-finals, with Mourinho still harbouring a grievance that the second leg would have taken on the air of “a friendly” had his team been more clinical with their finishing in Brussels last week.
The 1-1 draw has put them in a position of strength and judging by the evidence of the first leg, it would be a considerable shock if Mourinho’s attempts to win a second trophy for his club were to end under the floodlights at Old Trafford. Nonetheless, he is also probably entitled to think his team could have made life easier for themselves.
“The game was easy to kill,” he said. “The team had the game in their hands and didn’t kill the game. If we had won 3-0 it would be a nice game now and I could play some of the younger boys without any pressure.”
Instead, he will be compelled to pick another strong XI after Sunday’s win against Chelsea, arguably their best display at Old Trafford under any manager since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013. “It was a very good performance,” Mourinho said. “We touched the right points. The team was very intense and quick to recover the ball. I always think that football is a lot about motivational levels and, of course, playing the leaders is always a challenge. We reached that level of concentration and intensity against Chelsea because we started from minute one.”
When his players emerged for their training session on the pitches at Carrington there was the sight of Wayne Rooney leading from the front. Rooney has injured both ankles recently and, plainly, the 31-year-old has not aged as well as Ibrahimovic or many other 30-somethings from the same profession. “He has had not big [injury] problems during the season,” Mourinho said, “but he has had a few small problems and sometimes when you get to a certain age … I am not saying he is old – we have older players, there are many older players in great conditions – but when you get to a certain age, it is a little bit more difficult to recover.”
The plan, according to Mourinho, was to include Rooney among the substitutes, but only if the manager saw “something positive” in training and it was another news conference that left the impression the former England captain – the title now being applied in the past tense bearing in mind some of Gareth Southgate’s recent remarks – is gradually being phased out at the club where he is the record scorer.
“We have seven matches to play in the Premier League, plus one, three or four in the Europa League, so we can go to 10 or 11 matches,” Mourinho said. “We don’t have many players. We lost players in the January market when we didn’t bring in anyone and we lost players [to injury] in the international week. We need everyone we can. Hopefully he [Rooney] can be a help.”
Manchester United (4-2-3-1, possible): Romero; Valencia, Bailly, Rojo, Darmian; Carrick, Fellaini; Mkhitaryan, Pogba, Young; Ibrahimovic.
Anderlecht (4-2-3-1, possible): Ruben; Appiah, Kara, Spajic, Acheampong; Tielemans, Dendoncker; Chipciu, Stanciu, Bruno; Teodorczyk.
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