Manchester United’s French midfielder Paul Pogba (L) talks with Manchester United’s Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho (C) as he leaves the pitch injured and substituted for Manchester United’s Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini (R) during the UEFA Europa League round of 16 second-leg football match between Manchester United and FC Rostov at Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, north-west England, on March 16, 2017. PHOTO: Oli SCARFF / AFP
Jose Mourinho suggested last weekend that he had considered abandoning a push for the Premier League’s top four to focus on European competition and failure to beat Sunderland on Sunday may see that pledge become a reality.
United’s best hope of qualifying for next season’s Champions League increasingly appears to be by winning the Europa League, with the first leg of their quarter-final against Anderlecht in Belgium on Thursday.
Mourinho’s team face a congested fixture list — the visit to Sunderland will be their third of nine matches during April.
The first two ended in disappointing home draws against West Bromwich Albion and Everton, leaving United four points adrift of the top four with a game in hand.
At least, Mourinho has his leading scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic back.
The former Paris Saint-Germain striker was not at his best against Everton on his return from a three-match domestic ban, but showed the calmness required to convert the 94th-minute penalty that secured United a point.
Ibrahimovic, with 27 goals in all competitions for United this season, is a reassuring presence in an attack that is otherwise struggling.
Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford have scored 21 goals between them this season, but only nine of those have come in the league.
Rashford’s last league goal was on September 24, and he has looked desperately short of confidence lately.
A failure to convert chances is certainly a factor in United’s inability to close on the top four. In the two matches against West Brom and Everton, they managed a total of 36 efforts on goal, yet scored only once.
“Looking to next season, I think it’s a good feeling to know we haven’t lost many matches,” Mourinho said.
“It’s good to know we’re 20 matches undefeated in the Premier League. Ten draws in 10 matches is 10 points; five victories and five defeats in 10 matches is 15 points. But the points are the reality.”
– Upheaval –
Mourinho is hopeful that Paul Pogba’s return to fitness will help in that respect. The France midfielder, recovered from a hamstring problem, hit the bar after coming on at half-time against Everton, and is likely to start at Sunderland.
Luke Shaw, who also returned as a substitute on Wednesday after a long spell out of favour, is set to be on the bench again.
Sunderland manager David Moyes has predicted a major summer upheaval as the Wearside club prepare for life in the Championship.
The Scot insists the fight to remain in the Premier League will go on until survival is mathematically impossible, but concedes his rock bottom side require a miracle in order to bridge the 10-point gap to safety with eight games remaining.
Despite imminent relegation, Moyes has been backed to remain at the helm in the hope the former Manchester United manager can lead a successful promotion campaign next season.
The 53-year-old concedes that will involve another massive shake-up in personnel at a club that has become accustomed to huge changes in the wake of fighting four successive successful relegation battles.
Top scorer Jermain Defoe is set to leave on a free, and Sunderland will part-finance their spending by cashing-in on England Under-21 goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who is a target for several Premier League clubs.
Record signing Didier N’Dong, Lamine Kone, Wahbi Khazri and Jan Kirchhoff are also set to leave if the Wearsiders’ 10-year stay in the top-flight comes to an end in May.
“There will be a change around of players again. Lots of players came in on loan or free transfers last summer and there will be a big turn around of players again,” Moyes said.
“We were short of players at the start of last season so I’d be surprised if it was much different going into the next season.”