Manchester United fans left Old Trafford on Tuesday evening struggling to comprehend what they had just witnessed, as their team crashed out of the Champions League after losing 2-1 to Sevilla.
The first leg finished 0-0, which wasn’t the worst result, but it put pressure on Jose Mourinho to come up with a plan to stop the Spaniards from scoring in Manchester, as they had no away goal as a safety blanket.
United supporters felt the most obvious way to approach the game was to come out all guns blazing and score a couple of goals. This would force the Sevilla players’ heads to drop and even if they did manage an away goal, United would still go through.
However, even before kick-off, the fans had to know this wasn’t going to be the strategy that Mourinho employed.
His intention was clearly to play for a 1-0 win, which was an incredibly risky move and it didn’t pay off.
Firstly, Sevilla had more shots on and off target than United, which allowed them to score two away goals. With 15 minutes left to play, United were tasked with having to score three to go through, which was more or less impossible.
They did look better and more urgent in their play once they went behind, as you would imagine, but it was too little too late, and Romelu Lukaku’s brilliant strike only served as a consolation, as much as he tried to whip up the atmosphere when going back to the centre circle for the re-start.
This isn’t the first time United have been knocked out by inferior opponents, with Sevilla currently ranked fifth in La Liga, as Mourinho reminded everyone in his post-match conference.
“It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “I sit in this chair twice in the Champions League and I knock out Man United at home, at Old Trafford. I sit in this chair with Porto – Man United out.”
Porto beat United in 2004, on Mourinho’s journey to winning the competition, and while the wrong decision to disallow Paul Scholes’ first-half goal contributed to that, Sir Alex Ferguson was guilty of playing too cautiously that evening too. They started with just one striker, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and left Louis Saha and a young Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench to make way for a five-man midfield that included Eric Djemba-Djemba.
Having lost 2-1 away from home, a 1-0 win would have seen United through to the next round. However, Porto created more chances and knocked United out with an equalising goal in the last minute of the game.
United progressed when playing incredibly defensively four years later when beating Barcelona 1-0 in the semi-final. Ferguson’s team had just two shots on target and 37% possession, with them barely leaving their own half in the final half an hour of the game, yet United’s backline kept Barcelona out and won.
Memories of these evenings, and many more, will be little consolation to United supporters this week though and they won’t be used as a defence of Mourinho, who lost so much of the good favour he’d earned from the wins over Liverpool and Chelsea over the past fortnight.
When playing against better opposition, there are times when it’s sensible to play it safe, but it’s hard to justify Mourinho’s approach to Tuesday night’s approach. Sevilla didn’t even have to play well to win.
The fault doesn’t solely lie with the manager though but with the players too. They struggled to pass the ball a few yards at times and were wasteful with the limited chances they created. Given that it was the biggest game in their career so far for some of them, and for many others the biggest game for several years, their lack of effort and determination was appalling.
Lukaku, Marcus Rashford and Eric Bailly are arguably the only players who could have left Old Trafford not feeling totally embarrassed by their performance, but they hardly set the world alight either.
The chances of United going on to win the Champions League were slim to none and the extra games against tougher opponents likely would have only detracted from their league position, yet that doesn’t change how frustrating it was for the fans to see their team bow out so feebly.
United take on Brighton on Saturday evening in the FA Cup and the pressure on Mourinho is likely greater than it’s ever been since he took charge.
In Stockholm last season, ahead of the Europa League final, the manager knew he was 90 minutes away from overseeing a good season or an awful one, so important was it to beat Ajax that evening. It’s a similar story for his next fixture. Even if United were able to hold on to second place in the league, it would be incredibly disappointing to end the campaign without any silverware, so United must go through to the semi-finals.
Mourinho has to get it right against Brighton and if he wants the fans behind the team, roaring them on, he cannot afford to set up his team in the same manner as he did on Tuesday.
The manager is walking a tightrope at the moment, with some fans having already turned on him, so he must revert to the football the fans long for in this crucial FA Cup game. Patience is running thin. Attack, attack, attack.