In years gone by, The Europa League (or UEFA Cup as it was once known) was perhaps looked upon a lot more fondly than it is now.
British clubs that couldn’t quite compete with the Manchester Uniteds or Arsenals of this world (think: your Aston Villas, your West Hams, your Evertons and so on) would relish the opportunity to compete on the European stage, albeit in a competition that was and still is known as the Champions League’s younger sister.
And way into the 2000s and beyond, it’s fair to say the Europa League provided a backdrop for some of European football’s most exciting matches.
Middlesbrough were the nearly men in 2006, making it to the final only to be thwarted by an unplayable Sevilla CF. Celtic often had a go and came agonisingly close, losing in the 2003 final to Porto in extra time.
Even as recently as last year, Liverpool made it all the way to the final only to lose out again to a Sevilla side who had, by that point, won the competition more times than worth bothering to count.
This year, it’s Manchester United, curiously, who are British football’s last bastion of hope left in the competition.
They currently sit at odds of 6/4 to win the competition according to the Europa League betting and on paper certainly have a side well positioned to go far. United emerged top in a recent poll by WhichBookie.co.uk which asked fans of all clubs which team they were planning to bet on to go on to win the tournament.
With the added carrot of a backdoor place into next season’s Champions League for the eventual winner, Red Devils boss Jose Mourinho now faces a serious dilemma.
Improved league form and the continued demise of Arsenal in 2017 has opened up a real opportunity for United to finish fourth in the EPL.
And now the decision rests with Jose on what his side must do next.
Does he fight on both fronts, or go for the European jugular and risk not achieving anything (of note) this season?
United may still end up finishing 5th and get dumped out of the Europa League at the semi-final stage, but maybe the fans will respect Mourinho for the simple fact that he gave it a good go?
Or does he batten down the hatches and send a bunch of youth-teamers to get an honorary slaughtering in Anderlecht, thus preserving his key men for the weekend’s Premier League action?
Both options come with their health warnings of course, but judging by the strength in depth United have in their squad, what is clear is that Jose doesn’t have to choose one or the other.
Over £100 million was spent on new recruits at Old Trafford last summer, so coping with two games per week for the duration of a season should well be within the realms of capability for United’s stars.
As Mourinho rightly pointed out in a press conference last week, many of United’s squad, i.e. Paul Pogba at Juventus or Henrikh Mkhitaryan at Dortmund, would still be playing in the Champions League right now if it weren’t for their move to the red side of Manchester last year.
Perhaps with the World Cup 2018 qualifiers the object of our focus for the next seven days, things will become clearer once Mourinho can count up how many of his stars make it back injury-free following their respective international games. In other words, luck on the treatment table may play a bigger part in his decision than we think.
As a partisan follower of any club from Blighty that can make their mark in European football, here’s to hoping that Pogba, Mkhitaryan and the rest of United’s international stars come out of March’s international break unscathed and ready to fight for silverware in a competition which has eluded British clubs for far too long now.