13:45
Opinion

Do Manchester United benefit or suffer from remaining alive in four competitions?

Wednesday 15th February 2017
Having to choose who to save is a classic hero's dilemma. Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor put the choice to Christopher Reeve's Superman in the first motion picture featuring the Man of Steel. Stop a missile headed for the West Coast or save Lois Lane from being buried alive. Reeve's Superman opted for the missile, then flew counterclockwise around the planet faster than light to turn back time so he could also save the girl. One has to wonder why he didn't just give himself the extra time from the get-go, then deal with Luthor before he could launch the missile. Regardless, it all came good in the end. In The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger's Joker tested Christian Bale's Batman in similar fashion. Two bombs. One attached to the everyday hero who could eliminate the need for Batman, Gotham DA Harvey Dent. The other to Bruce Wayne's boyhood crush, Rachel Dawes. Things didn't work out so well for the Caped Crusader, who (sort of) rescued Dent when he thought he was saving the girl, then wasn't capable of FTL travel to set things right.
When your heroes are footballers, the choice for managers becomes when to save their best players and for which competition. At the moment, Manchester United are the only English club faced with four choices: the Premier and Europa Leagues as well as the League and FA Cups. On the one hand, José Mourinho can be grateful there is only one more match in the EFL Cup, that being the final at month's end. On the other, sitting in sixth place in the Premier League means he probably relates more with Batman than Superman.

To ensure Champions League football in 2017-18, Mourinho must decide whether to assign the greater part of his resources to catching two from Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, and City in Premier League play or focus on winning the Europa League. The joker in Mou's deck is there is no guarantee either strategy will work. However he chooses, the season could blow up in his face.

Therefore, the Portuguese has to keep United's options open by progressing in the FA Cup. Winning it gives United direct entry into next season's Europa League group stage. Finishing fifth in the Prem only places them in the playoff round. Beating Southampton in the EFL Cup is even worse. It earns the Red Devils a berth in the third qualifying round, effectively killing his squad's summer holidays and guaranteeing they'll be running on fumes from lack of rest next spring, even more so than they are now.
There is no easy answer. Winning at Wembley in a fortnight will at least give United fans a trophy and guarantee continental competition in some form when the football calendar turns over. Unfortunately, it also means the Manchester Derby's second leg must be postponed until sometime in the season's final weeks. United already have Chelsea in mid-April, then Arsenal and Spurs in May. They could also be facing FA Cup and Europa League finals. The only positive to be found in a top-heavy end to the season is the opportunity to take points directly from the clubs they trail in the table. In this manner, their destiny is more in their own hands than it would be had they already faced those clubs.

Of the five clubs above them in the standings, Tottenham, Arsenal, and City remain involved in the FA Cup and Europe. They won't be fresh as daisies themselves when they take the pitch against United.

Chelsea only have the FA Cup to distract them from wrapping up the Premier League title. When they visit Old Trafford, there will be six matches still to be played in the league. The Blues aren't so far ahead now (eight points beyond City) as to believe they won't have anything to play for in that match. In fact, the opposite is more likely. It's possible Antonio Conte will bring his side north with the chance to clinch the title.

Meanwhile, Liverpool have nothing but the league on which to focus. United have already played their biggest rivals home and away, so there is no direct advantage or disadvantage to be had. Still, the Reds are the one club with which United will be looking to others for help. If Jürgen Klopp's squad is well-rested, it's less likely they'll drop points.

Mourinho certainly has difficult choices ahead with regards to squad rotation, and could use a break or two. Then again, Harvey Dent said it best. You make your own luck.
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