A poor finish could take shine off United’s season

Manchester United may have rediscovered their mojo, but the club might still hit the wall in the finishing straight of this marathon season.

Yes, they have stumbled upon a lethal front three, signed a top playmaker and are back among the big boys next time around. They even have a sniff of silverware.

All of which is enough to quell talk of Mauricio Pochettino taking over – for now.

After years of post-Fergie purdah under the Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho regimes, the shackles have been released and the fans, as well as players, have a new spring in their step.

But they’d be advised not to turn it into a swagger: Tricky assignments await both on and off the field.

They still have a dodgy defence, a keeper who can’t catch a bus and a head honcho who, unlike the Canadian Mounties, does not always get his man.

First up on Sunday night (3am on Monday in Malaysia) are Sevilla, unbeaten in 19 games and the undisputed masters of the Europa League.

And if the Devils do negotiate this difficult semi-final hurdle, they will face either Inter Milan or Shakhtar Donetsk in the final in Cologne just five days later.

All three look in better shape than United, who are beginning to lose their stride and struggled to beat modest Copenhagen in the quarterfinals.

Inter are now the bookies’ favourites but Sevilla, who edged out Wolves in the last eight, are the form team.

And as five-times winners of the competition, the Spaniards know how to beat EPL clubs. Besides Wolves, ask Liverpool, whom they edged in the 2016 final. Ask Middlesbrough way back in the 2006 final. And ask United, whom they knocked out of the Champions League two years ago.

Led by the jinking Jesus Navas, who has had a new lease of life since leaving Manchester City, and prompted by Ever Banega, the classic Argentinian No.10, Julen Lopetegui’s men may have too much guile for a United defence badly in need of reinforcements.

They also may be solid enough at the back to resist the Greenwood/Martial/Rashford trident.

For all the flair and finishing of recent weeks, every Devils fan knows the team’s greatest need is a reliable and mobile partner for Harry Maguire – and this must surely come before Jadon Sancho who, if he costs over £100m, could mean there’s little left over for a defender.

But executive vice-president Ed Woodward always prefers the guys who are going to sell shirts to the honest toilers.

Egged on by the likes of Rio Ferdinand, who says, ‘Sancho is the best 20-year-old in the world’ and needed for United to go to the next level, the money man could yet again have his priorities wrong.

Borussia Dortmund are driving a hard bargain though and Woodward may not be prepared to meet their demands.

If not, he would complete an unwanted hat-trick of half-hearted pursuits, having already lost out to the German club with Erling Braut Haaland and Jay Bellingham.

For Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, being denied Haaland, the brightest prospect in world football and a fellow Norwegian, was a personal humiliation and remains United’s biggest defeat of the season.

Bellingham, a young English starlet from Birmingham City, was much less significant but still a reminder that United’s pulling power is not what it was.

There are other issues before any thoughts of duking it out with Liverpool and Manchester City can be entertained.

Paul Pogba has been shaken but not stirred. And David De Gea has been more like the ‘Blind Venetian’ Massimo Taibi than Peter Schmeichel in recent games.

Do they stick or twist and bring Dean Henderson back from loan at Sheffield United? And do they rely on the unconvincing Luke Shaw and Brandon Williams for leftback duties?

United’s transfer priorities could become clearer if they do win though. Whether it’s the Brazilian flair of Shakhtar or the familiar battering ram of Romelu Lukaku, Maguire and company could be in for a busy night.

Still, a trophy – even if it’s the same second-grade silverware that Mourinho boasted about – would be a boost for Solksjaer but it’s whether they can make it a double with success in the transfer window that will really matter.

And to lose one semi-final (in the FA Cup to Chelsea) may be regarded as misfortune, but to lose both would look like carelessness.

City must be wary of ‘Champions Lottery’

The Champions League has always been a misnomer with as many as four teams from the major European football nations taking part.

But such is the unpredictability of this year’s tournament that ‘lottery’ might be a more appropriate title.

Since the resumption, heavyweights Real Madrid and Juventus were knocked out even before we reached the 90-minute quarter and semifinals. And now Atletico Madrid have fallen to a late, killer goal to which there’s little time to respond.

Which is why Manchester City should be wary of their overwhelming (1-14) favourite status against Lyon in Sunday morning’s (3am in Malaysia) Champions League quarterfinal.

Lyon may have finished the aborted French season in seventh place, but they knocked out Juve over two legs.

And in the group phase two years ago, they won one and drew the other of their two encounters with Pep Guardiola’s men.

They are not to be taken lightly even if the bookies think so.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.