With the league out of sight, cups will define Man United's season
Manchester United's next two games at Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup and in Sevilla in the Champions League are huge. With Man City disappearing over the hill with a points tally that doesn't reflect well on United, Jose Mourinho must again look to the cups to make this a successful season. He did it last term and it paid off, but the Champions League, which he has won twice with unfancied teams, is a far taller order than the Europa League.
Finishing second, a position United have held for most of this season and a position ahead of the more lauded Liverpool and Tottenham, would be an improvement on previous years, but little more notable than 30 years ago when United finished second with a decade high of 81 points, but still nine points behind Liverpool. United were never in the title running then and they've not been this season, but that doesn't mean this season need be considered a flop.
United fans are enveloped in misery whenever the team loses, as they did at Newcastle on Sunday. Fans are learning to stomach the realism of their team not being the top dogs, something that is made easier when United are showing improvements and perceived to be heading in the right direction towards future league titles. But spirits have hardly been lifted midweek watching the Champions League. Manchester City and Liverpool were outstanding as they won away in Europe, Tottenham came from 2-0 down in Turin to draw 2-2 and the game at the Bernabeu showed two teams that are at a far higher level than United have been this season.
Real Madrid demonstrated that when they beat United in the Super Cup in August, but they've been poor in the league. When it comes to the crunch though, Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo get results. United need to do the same.
The FA Cup remains deeply respected by United fans and Mourinho. Winning that -- and stopping Manchester City doing any treble -- would be a massive fillip. Winning the Champions League would make the season, but let's be realistic: This United team isn't close to the level of the best in the Europe and everyone knows it, but would you rather have anyone else in charge when it comes to scraping results out in the competition? I wouldn't.
The players are less emotional and reactive than the fans. They ride the storms and criticism that comes with poor performances and try not to get swayed by the compliments. It's part of the job and as Ryan Giggs said: "It was never a big deal to get stick. If you're not playing well you should get stick."
United's defence has rightly been criticised this week and the expected return of Eric Bailly next week cannot come soon enough. Paul Pogba has been rightly slated for recent poor performances after being United's best player for a long time. Pogba needs to fix an understanding with his manager about his role and pull up some big performances in big matches.
United lost at Huddersfield in October -- their first league defeat of the season -- and while the Terriers have plummeted in the league, their manager David Wagner roused the locals last week, despite several visiting managers already complimenting Huddersfield on their atmosphere. They responded and were rewarded with a 4-1 win against Bournemouth.
Even though Huddersfield's priority is staying in the Premier League, the noise in their superb stadium will be phenomenal on Saturday, but at least United will have the full away end and more than 4,000 tickets. And the players will know that there can be no repeat of the October defeat. They'll also know that they're against one of the most aggressive teams in the league. Despite their staff being overheard saying "we're doing all right here" at half-time at Old Trafford two weeks ago when they eventually ran out 2-0 losers, some of the visitors' tackles in the game were shameful.
United have recovered well from defeats this season, beating West Ham 4-0 after the Madrid loss, Swansea 2-0 after the Huddersfield reverse, Newcastle 4-1 after another defeat at Stamford Bridge and Brighton 1-0 after losing in Basel. United came back from the derby defeat by beating Bournemouth and they were on course to beat Leicester away after the loss at Bristol City -- that was until one of the curses of United this season, conceding late goals, struck.
But United have lost their past two away games, playing woefully in each, and they can't afford to lose their next two. With games against Chelsea and Liverpool in the next month, the team must really raise their game to stay in second.
The cup draws have not been too unkind. United drew Real Madrid at this stage in 2013 and AC Milan in 2010. United should be good enough to beat Huddersfield, but they should have been good enough to beat a Newcastle side who hadn't won at home in the league in three and a half months.
And while Sevilla have had the greatest 12 years of their history, this season has been a poor one by their own high standards. They may sit sixth in La Liga, but they've scored only 29 league goals, the lowest in the top half of the table. Local rivals Real Betis put five past them in the Sanchez Pizjuan, Sevilla's open yet atmospheric home, for the first time. That was only last month, but it was also Sevilla's only home league defeat in 11 games, though they've yet to play any of the top four at home.
It may be their first competitive game against United, but they're not wide-eyed and as Juan Jimenez, a journalist with AS who has covered them since 1999 states: "Now Sevilla aren't just happy to be in the Champions League, they want to win it. Everyone knows United's history and many people will travel to the game but Sevilla don't want to be guests, they want to win the tie. And they believe they can."
Sevilla, who sacked their manager Eduardo Berizzo in December in controversial circumstances, have also reached the Copa del Rey final, where they will play Barcelona. Like United, they need to continue in the cup competitions if they're to make this a successful season.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.