Despite the numbing inevitability of domestic football in the modern world, the final two-and-a-half months of a season remain the most entertaining.
Of course, the league titles races in England, France and Germany were all done and dusted by Christmas, with Italy’s Serie A the only genuine title race among Europe’s big hitting leagues.
But as the Champions League enters the knockout stages, only 12 teams remain and the quarterfinal of any cup competition is the point at which teams start to believe they can go all the way.
As Manchester United welcome Sevilla for the second leg of their Round of 16 encounter, will their fans begin believing that this could be their year?
A Sevilla test?
Manchester United’s scoreless draw in Sevilla was not one for the purists – a turgid affair of few clear-cut chances with neither side asserting any sort of authority upon proceedings. Jose Mourinho’s side lacked guile and creativity yet ultimately achieved their objective and take an advantage, albeit an indecisive one, into the second leg on Tuesday night.
The Andalucian club have not had a vintage season: they may sit fifth in the standings but languish 11 points off the top four and are aware that Tuesday may well be their last outing in the competition for some stretch of time.
They are also flakey on the road and their 5-1 drubbing at Spartak Moscow earlier in the campaign was nothing short of a disaster.
Sevilla were eliminated at this stage last year by Leicester City and they are the underdogs ahead of their first ever competitive match at Old Trafford. Manchester United know any victory would suffice to ensure progression and barring a minor disaster, their name should be in the hat for the quarterfinal draw.
Silencing the critics
Mourinho’s men have been written off at various points this campaign and major questions were asked and decisions queries ahead of each of their last three league games.
Doubters may have been quietened by successive wins over Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Liverpool, with a mix of performances ultimately doing enough to give the Red Devils a cushion in second place.
The Portuguese boss will be frustrated at the gap between his side and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, but it is unquestionable that he has rediscovered his habit of winning matches when it matters.
Delivering two major trophies last season and a return to the Champions League represented a foundation base upon which to build, and while they are not at Europe’s elite level yet there are signs that something big is building.
Their spine of David De Gea, Eric Bailly, Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku have the possibility of providing the core of the club for the best part of a decade, complemented by youth team products Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay.
The ability to pluck Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal and Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic demonstrated the pulling power of the club and its mighty resources.
Few managers have the know-how of Mourinho in European competition – last season’s Europa League may not have been its strongest version yet Manchester United emerged unbeaten from their nine knockout matches. It was the Portuguese manager’s fourth major European title and he will be hungry to land the Champions League once more.
Guiding an unfashionable Chelsea outfit to the semi-finals in 2014 where they were overpowered in the semifinals, Mourinho was only eliminated the following season on away goals, after extra-time, to Paris Saint-Germain.
Mourinho’s pragmatism often shines brightest on this stage with his ability to negotiate double-legged ties, lean on a strong home record and avoiding defeat on the road at the heart of his strategy. Limiting the opposition to as few chances as possible with the knowledge his own troops have plenty in attack often proves hugely effective.
Parallels can be drawn with Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid who adopted a similar approach and, across the past four seasons, had only been eliminated in the knockout stages by their city neighbours.
They are not as all-powerful Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, nor are they as slick as Manchester City. But Manchester United can have the know-how to beat anyone in the competition and all eventual quarterfinalists will start to sniff the scent of glory.
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