Jose Mourinho and Man United desperately need bounce back result, performance
The start of this week had the feeling of one that was make or break for Jose Mourinho's season, with Manchester United playing in two cup competitions a few days apart.
The most important of these fixtures took place on Tuesday when United were beaten 2-1 at home by Sevilla, a team currently ranked fifth in La Liga. Of all the potential draws for the Champions League round of 16, United had done well to face the Spanish side and were clear favourites to progress to the quarterfinals.
However, thanks to a toxic combination of Mourinho's cautious approach and the players' lack of effort, United were handed a surprise exit from the competition.
As much as United fans might have hoped to see their team race out of the blocks on Tuesday, taking the sensible approach of trying to go a couple of goals ahead to secure their place among Europe's elite at the next stage, they knew ahead of kick-off that the chances of Mourinho sharing their plan was slim to none.
His defensive tactics in big games have become a source of frustration for United supporters, even when they have been successful. United have claimed wins over Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal this season, but the woeful football on show in the 0-0 draw at Anfield and the pathetic display in the 2-1 home defeat against City are still on the list of supporters' grumbles.
To see United looking to keep Sevilla out and snatch a goal looked like a disaster waiting to happen and that proved to be the case. The Spaniards scored twice late on and only then did the manager and players spring in to action. It was too little too late.
Had United gone on the attack and lost, while plenty would have moaned that Mourinho should have stuck to his principles and seen out a narrow win, because football fans are fickle like that, many would have appreciated seeing the team give it a real go. If you lose because the opposition is the better team on the day, despite your best efforts, then that is much easier to accept. But to lose in the fashion that United did is unforgivable for many.
As Mourinho walked towards the tunnel after the final whistle, he was met with a mixture of jeers and applause from the Stretford End. There were those reacting with their hearts, who have become fed up with seeing their beloved team perform in a way that is so foreign to them. United have the players to go out and try and beat anyone, but instead Mourinho puts on the reigns and holds them back. These fans let their feelings known and booed him.
Then there were those who reacted with their heads, knowing that the manager leaving now doesn't make the best sense for the club going forward, given how unstable it would make United to see yet another new manager, with new desired players and different tactics to introduce. Those fans clapped him down the tunnel.
The United fan base is largely fiercely loyal, rightly or wrongly. Let's not forget that David Moyes managed to reach April before being sacked, when it became mathematically impossible for them to finish top four and after they'd lost on penalties to Sunderland in the League Cup semifinal, and he didn't get booed once at Old Trafford.
The best atmospheres of the season were during the back-to-back 3-0 defeats to Liverpool and City, the fans remaining behind the team, even if the chants in support of Moyes had stopped being sung. Sir Alex Ferguson had left them with the instruction to stick by the new manager so the fans did as they were told and didn't turn on Moyes, despite it becoming obvious early on that he was painfully out of his depth at United.
The picture is much brighter under Mourinho, with him winning two trophies in his debut season and the team currently four points clear of the team closest to them in third. But it's still not bright enough.
Having been outspent by City in four of the last five seasons and Guardiola inheriting a squad with far greater quality than Mourinho in the first place, it's no surprise that City are ahead. But the gulf in the style of football is even greater than the number of points separating them.
On Saturday, United take on Brighton in the FA Cup and this is their last shot for silverware this season. Just like success in the Europa League last year was able to define Mourinho's season, the same could be said of the FA Cup now. If they are to win, every game in this competition will carry the same pressure of the Europa League final in Stockholm against Ajax.
You would imagine this would be enough to motivate the players, but then you would have thought the promise of playing in the quarterfinals of the Champions League would have done the same. Unfortunately, it didn't.
The squad have grovelled to the fans on social media in the days that have followed their exit from Europe but talk is cheap and the supporters want to see that supposed remorse put into action on the pitch. Anything but a win against Brighton will be unacceptable.
And if Mourinho is brave enough to deploy the same negative tactics on Saturday, he better pray that it pays off. The atmosphere inside the stadium has been noticeably better over the past two games but if he wants them on his side against Brighton he has to do something different.
If United play cautiously and lose against inferior opposition again, the damage inflicted on Mourinho's relationship with the fans may be irreparable. And if he plays cautiously and they win, it won't be a great deal better. Brighton are in the bottom half of the table and there will be no excuse for United not to get the win and not to attack.
Scott is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @R_o_M.