Saints draw just a warm-up for Man United's season-defining UEL final
SOUTHAMPTON, England -- If Manchester United prevail against Ajax in Stockholm next week to win the Europa League, nights like Wednesday may fade into the distant memory. In truth, that will not be difficult regardless of United's fate in the Europa final next Wednesday, such was the shapelessness of what they served up at St Mary's. For United, this was simply the latest box to be ticked in an extended warm-up to the match on which their next 12 months now hinges, and while that may reasonably be considered a joyless way to treat the latter stages of a Premier League campaign, there will be no apologies from manager Jose Mourinho if his strategy pays off.
United did little more than flicker against a Southampton team that was generally sharper. Anthony Martial curled a deft 20-yard effort against the post in United's best moment of the game. With a sixth-place Premier League finish cast in stone, an extra few inches to the left would have affected the headlines and little more. This was primarily an exercise of conditioning and balance, ensuring the team's continuity was not disrupted unduly while giving rest and minutes to the right players, and in that respect it was a job achieved with mixed results.
While Mourinho explained in his postmatch news conference that Juan Mata, who was replaced by Marcus Rashford with 21 minutes remaining, was sent straight down the tunnel to have a shower rather than for any medical treatment, the news about Marouane Fellaini -- withdrawn six minutes later himself -- was less positive. Fellaini appeared to have strained a hamstring, although Mourinho explained the player assured him the damage was not serious.
"He says it's not a tear from his experience ... believing and trusting his feelings, he should be OK," said the manager. It was not entirely convincing, and there may be a nervous wait before Mourinho knows the extent of his midfield options for the final.
Far more persuasive was the case stated by goalkeeper Sergio Romero. Barring a U-turn from Mourinho, Romero will face Ajax, and was a slightly surprising choice at Southampton. With 20-year-old goalkeeper Joel Pereira set for his Premier League debut on Sunday, there remains a chance that David De Gea, persistently linked with Real Madrid, has played his last game for United, but Romero saved them a point here and looked sharp throughout. His early penalty save from Manolo Gabbiadini, getting down to his right and tipping a reasonably placed shot wide, was excellent, and he made three more impressive stops during a period of intense Southampton pressure after the break; the pick of the bunch was a flying parry from James Ward-Prowse's 22-yard effort shortly before the hour.
Romero's future at United is uncertain, but with Ajax in mind, it was exactly the right call to give him only his second Premier League appearance of the season. He appeared confident and was occupied often, and this was ideal preparation for a far more important assignment in seven days' time.
"I never saw two goalkeepers be so close and such [good] friends," Mourinho said of Romero and De Gea. "They are amazing with each other, so everything went very smoothly during the season. Everybody accepted my decisions and I'm very happy with both of them."
Mourinho's satisfaction did not extend to the Premier League's schedulers. It is a familiar battle and one he said he has given up fighting, but United host Crystal Palace on Sunday, and he had a point in saying it affords him little time to respect that fixture and keep his first-choice players fresh for Stockholm.
"In any country in the world the match would be on Saturday," he said. "From the moment Palace beat Hull, I think the match had to be on Saturday. It's frustrating for me, and I hope you don't kill me when you see my team."
He reeled off a list of youngsters and fringe players who will be involved -- along with Paul Pogba, who is likely to be a substitute after missing the Southampton game after the death of his father. Any decisions Mourinho has to make regarding his senior players will be reached using evidence he has already seen, but there was little more to inform him at St Mary's.
Wayne Rooney, starting a match in the centre-forward position for the first time since United's Europa League fixture at Fenerbahce in November, showed some deft touches early on but will not be a serious contender to face Ajax instead of Rashford, whose introduction gave United some late spark.
Of more interest is who starts either side of the youngster: Martial came close to winning the game and also dragged a first-half opening wide but was not a persistent threat from the left; Mata lifted a presentable chance over after good work from Rooney, and Mata's ability to find pockets of space around the box may yet prove appealing. Henrikh Mkhitaryan offered little threat in the centre, and the sense, as so often this season, is that the right attacking blend remains elusive.
The other obvious place up for contention is the centre-back spot alongside Daley Blind. This was a welcome clean sheet for Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, but United still gave up a number of chances and it remains a headache for Mourinho that Eric Bailly, a lively presence when filling in again at right-back here despite his concession of the penalty, will be suspended next Wednesday.
"I'm happy we played like that because they know this match didn't matter, counted for nothing, so I give them credit," Mourinho said of his team. That is fine as far as it goes, but watching United effectively mark out time here, their approach to the final month of the season does not sit easily.
Victory over Palace would bring their league tally to 18 wins; it will still be the club's smallest number of wins since they managed 16 in the 1990-91 campaign. Two more during a five-game period in which they have wound down their domestic campaign would have averted that record and given them genuine hope of a top-four place going into the final weekend. It should not have been too much to ask, but instead Mourinho has chosen a shootout for the highest of stakes. After United contested a draw of no consequence whatsoever at St Mary's, you sense his gamble has to succeed if he is not to have done his club a disservice.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.