Manchester United face five days which could be crucial in decided whether this season is ultimately remembered as a successful one or not.
Jose Mourinho’s side are now lagging a scarcely believable 16 points behind rivals Manchester City. That they are second does not hold great significance as two sets of matchday results could see them potentially slip from the top four.
Last season, the Portuguese made a big thing of his side's two trophies: the EFL Cup and the Europa League. These were, he suggested, proof that the Mourinho project was working.
If the same logics hold now, then only a cup triumph can save Manchester United's season now.
FA Cup progression
On Saturday, the Red Devils travel back to the scene of their first league defeat of the campaign – the 2-1 loss at Huddersfield in October was mildly traumatic.
Until that point, they trailed by just two points after eight matches and all signs pointed to a title battle between the two Manchester clubs that season.
But United were wretched at the vibrant newly-promoted club and their credentials were exposed badly, with the gap at the top growing steadily wider since.
It is a potentially tricky draw but progression would ensure United are only one match away from a return to Wembley and earlier eliminations of Arsenal and Liverpool has opened up the competition to each of their respective top-six rivals.
United’s vocal travelling fan base have been allocated 4,000 tickets which should theoretically help counter a home support who have been a credit to their club’s first spell in the top flight in 45 years.
Champions League success?
Four days later and Manchester United travel to the Andalusian capital of Seville to face a Sevilla side who have won six European trophies since 2006.
The two have never before played competitively but the Spanish side are enduring a below-par season; sitting sixth domestically and in potential danger of losing a European spot altogether for next season. Like their English counterparts, their season will once more be defined by cups with a Copa del Rey final against Barcelona still to come.
Yet for United this represents a winnable tie. There is no question that Mourinho’s men are not among Europe’s sides at present yet equally they cannot be altogether discounted from success.
Significant strides have been made in recent years and that they sit second in England’s top flight is a marked improvement on each of the past four campaigns – where the Manchester side have finished in each position between 7th and 4th but never higher.
Trophies accentuate success
However, unless you are actively involved in a title pursuit or competing in cup finals, these improvements will not be given widespread acclaim.
This would not be unfair – Manchester United have the second biggest spend in England and it is not acceptable to trail Manchester City by 16 points, neither were their performances in the recent woeful defeats at Tottenham and Newcastle.
The club is subject to intense scrutiny and problems are often amplified but there are clear questions to be asked of Mourinho and his players if they come up empty-handed this season.
Sevilla play a high-tempo, high-energy brand of football and possess immense experience on the European stage yet it would be hard to make an argument that they are anything but underdogs for this tie.
Los Rojiblancos have had traumatic moments this season, none moreso than last month’s 5-3 defeat at home to city rivals Real Betis – the first time they had ever conceded five at home to their neighbours.
Their 5-1 Champions League loss at Spartak Moscow was harrowing, while they have also been thrashed 5-0 at Real Madrid, 4-0 at Valencia and most recently, 5-1 at Eibar.
Elsewhere in the Premier League
The recent big away victories from Manchester City and Liverpool, alongside Tottenham’s comeback in Turin, have only ramped up the pressure on Mourinho’s side to not only win the tie but do so with a convincing performance.
Those have largely been absent since a frantic start to the season, with Manchester United’s season stuttering since.
Last season, hugely underwhelming league performances were tolerated due to successes in the League Cup and Europa League, yet these achievements do not rank alongside those of the tournaments United remain in.
Two wins could help reignite the faltering campaign but anything less will only embolden doubters and a sense of unease around the club.
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