After Manchester United’s 3-1 defeat to West Ham United, the latest dismal installment in English football’s greatest ongoing soap opera, Jose Mourinho insisted he remains upbeat.
“I am really happy that we have a game on Tuesday,” the beleaguered Portuguese boss said, according to Sky Sports. “I prefer that to only playing next Saturday, with one week of these bad feelings.”
Indeed, Tuesday’s Champions League tilt with Spanish side Valencia offers a tantalizing distraction from the horrors of United’s past few days. Not only was the defeat to the Hammers an atrocious stinkbomb of a result, but it came at the end of a week which had already seen two points dropped at home to promoted Wolves followed by a disastrous League Cup exit to Championship side Derby County.
In contrast to their languishing league form, the Red Devils have already cruised past Young Boys – admittedly, plainly Group H’s weakest component – in continental action and know they will almost certainly open up a six-point cushion with victory over Los Che. Lose, however, and the omnipresent scrutiny may become too much for the already-fraying Mourinho to bear.
For their opponents, too, all is far from rosy. Valencia’s 1-0 win at Real Sociedad this weekend has at least established some momentum. But it was the proud old club’s first in eight games across all competitions in 2018-19. Marcelino’s men come to Old Trafford sitting 14th in La Liga with eight points, some seven fewer than they had accrued by this point last season. Though far from the same degree as Mourinho, Los Che’s boss is also a man under pressure, despite having lifted the club from its two-season slump to finish fourth last term and qualify for European football for the first time since 2015.
In fact, that return to the elite may be part of the problem.
“Did we expect to qualify for the Champions League? Absolutely not. Not so quickly,” club president Anil Murthy told BBC Sport.
Now that the club is back in the big time after back-to-back 12th-place finishes, Marcelino is faced with the unenviable task of tempering rapidly rising expectations around the Mestalla while also balancing a continental campaign with the weekly grind of La Liga. The weight on the Spaniard’s shoulders is increased by the fact that the Iberians have found the net just five times across their eight matches and have struggled to impose themselves upon opponents. His history as manager of heated local rivals Villarreal doesn’t make rough waters any easier to navigate.
Tuesday’s visitors to the Theatre of Dreams find themselves in a starkly contrasting situation to United’s in Group H. Having meekly submitted to Italian champions Juventus in a group opener dominated by the furor surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo’s controversial red card, defeat in Salford would leave the two-time Champions League runners-up six points off the pace – not quite dead in the water, but floundering desperately with an imposing trip to Turin still to come.
The magnitude of this game in the context of both Valencia’s season and where the club hopes to station itself is indicated in the fact Marcelino, with eyes on the midweek trip, made eight changes for the win at Sociedad, resting first-team regulars such as Rodrigo, Ezequiel Garay, Goncalo Guedes, Jeison Murillo, and Francis Coquelin.
All of the usual starters are likely to return at Old Trafford, with Marcelino’s major decision set to be whether to support main man Rodrigo with Saturday’s match-winner Kevin Gameiro or on-loan Chelsea striker Michy Batshuayi.
For Mourinho, too, team selection will be a key issue. Does he go all-in on the Champions League, a competition United are highly unlikely to win, or does he hold back a key weapon or two in the reserves of his arsenal given the desperate need for an upturn in league form? His decisions will likely be influenced by the fact that an international break follows Saturday’s clash with Newcastle United. Jesse Lingard, Ashley Young, Ander Herrera, and Marcos Rojo are confirmed absentees for Tuesday’s clash.
Valencia could not ask for a better chance to beat a dazed United at Old Trafford, but they’ve only won once in 10 previous trips to English clubs in the Champions League. For their part, United have tasted victory in just two of their last 13 meetings with La Liga sides.
In more ways than one, something’s gotta give.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)