Europa League may be Manchester United's only hope for UCL spot
ODESSA, Ukraine -- It is the one major trophy missing from Manchester United's collection and, for a large part of the last 25 years (even in its guise as the UEFA Cup), it has been treated with little more than contempt by a club with eyes fixed firmly on bigger prizes.
But as Jose Mourinho's team prepare to face Zorya Luhansk in Ukraine on Thursday aiming to secure the point that will guarantee progression from the Europa League's Group A into the knockout stages, the Champions League's "ugly sister" has arguably become the priority for United this season.
Already nine points adrift of fourth-placed Manchester City in the Premier League, United have virtually lost their margin for error in sealing Champions League qualification with a top four finish.
Anything but a victory against fifth-placed Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on Sunday will surely end United's already flickering hopes of climbing into the top four, so at what point does Mourinho begin to treat the Europa League as his team's best chance of returning to the Champions League?
The official word from Old Trafford has been that United attempt to win every competition that they enter, with all treated as important as each other. So having been forced to embark on a Europa League campaign this season following last season's fifth-placed finish under Louis van Gaal, United and Mourinho have insisted that the competition carries as much weight as any other.
The reality appears to have been different, with Mourinho not shy when it comes to complaining about the difficulties that come with playing in the Europa League.
On Wednesday evening in Odessa, Mourinho was quick to highlight the downsides of the competition by insisting that Thursday night football hurts preparation and recovery time for his players, pointing to the lack of Monday night games for his team -- United played Liverpool at Anfield on a Monday earlier this season -- as a negative because it denies them an extra day of rest.
But with the Europa League winners securing direct access to the Champions League, the route to the final in Stockholm would now appear to be less hazardous, and more navigable, than United's path to the Premier League top four.
Liverpool almost claimed a back-door pass into this season's Champions League by progressing to last season's Europa League final, only to lose to perennial winners Sevilla in Basel. Jurgen Klopp's team overcame United and Borussia Dortmund to make it to the final, eliminating two European heavyweights in the process, but the make-up of this year's Europa League is far less challenging.
Of the eight clubs who will drop into the Europa League from the Champions League for next Monday's draw for the round of 32, Tottenham would seem to carry the greatest threat to United and can be drawn from the round of 16 onwards. But with Mauricio Pochettino's team only three points adrift of the top four, their focus is likely to remain on climbing back into the Champions League positions. Will they treat the Europa League seriously or will the priority be domestic matters?
But aside from Spurs, the seven other Champions League drop-outs are not of the calibre of a Dortmund or Sevilla. Besiktas, Lyon, FC Copenhagen, Ludogorets, FC Rostov, Legia Warsaw and Borussia Monchengladbach will all be in Monday's draw; United will not be fazed by any of those clubs.
Meanwhile, of those clubs likely to make it into the last 32 from the start, only Zenit St Petersburg, AS Roma and Schalke would seem strong enough to be classed as genuine rivals to a United side willing to take the competition seriously.
By the time the Europa League resumes in February, United's Premier League prospects will be clear. If they mount a mid-winter surge for the top four and place themselves in the heart of the battle, Thursday night commitments in Europe may well drop down the agenda for Mourinho.
But United must overcome some serious traffic to put themselves back in the race and are likely to require at least two of the current top five to suffer a calamitous run of results over the next two months to hand them a lifeline.
So Europe is now becoming a potential season-saver for United and Mourinho. If they secure the point they require against Zorya to make it into the knockout stages, United will find themselves as the only A-listers in a B-list competition.
They will face a busy schedule, with eight games to negotiate if they are to reach the final at Stockholm's Friends Arena on May 24, but the positive of the Europa League is that United are theoretically just nine games away from qualifying for the Champions League.
It would be a risky strategy to give the Premier League second billing to the Europa League, but the rewards for doing that successfully are obvious: a major trophy in the Old Trafford cabinet and a place in the Champions League for winning it. Making that the priority would now appear to be the only route to take for Mourinho.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_