By Matthew Galea
Manchester United return to the European front on Friday, long after the dust has settled on the opening round of Champions League group stage action.
Once again, United must settle for the Europa League. The last painful reminder of the horror that was last season.
Louis van Gaal failed miserably in his attempts to ensure United finished in the top four and qualified for this season’s Champions League campaign, and he – quite rightly – paid the ultimate price for that failure.
Of course, his chunk of the £4.8million pay-out is not a bad result for the Dutchman, but United and new manager Jose Mourinho have been left to rectify the situation.
Still, some European football is better than none and while Mourinho has already stated that the Europa League is far from the top of his list of priorities, it is important that United has another avenue to – if nothing else – play squad players and give them a chance to prove their worth to the first team.
Mourinho has not had to change much thus far this season. Saturday’s heavy 2-1 derby defeat (if not on the scoreline then certainly in general play) against Manchester City has certainly set the cat among the pigeons in that regard, with many of the Portuguese manager’s changes failing to have the desired effect, but that makes the Europa League all the more important for the squad as a whole.
Dropping Juan Mata and Anthony Martial in favour of Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan seemed an odd choice given the performances of the Spaniard and Frenchman – particularly the latter who had starred for his country over the international break – and their replacements did little to ease the pre-kick-off concerns of fans.
It would be harsh to write of Mkhitaryan on one performance, particularly given his best football seems to come from a central position as opposed to a wide one, but having changed little before the derby, it was a big ask to drop him into the starting XI for the biggest game of the season thus far and expect him to light it up.
Perhaps Mourinho would be better served in using the Europa League to experiment with his line-ups and I hope that is what he does against Feyenoord on Friday.
The Dutch outfit are a good enough team to test whichever XI Mourinho names and I would like to see the likes of Chris Smalling, Morgan Schneiderlin and Marcus Rashford involved from the start.
Memphis Depay should also be given some game time to prove whether or not he is ready to step up and challenge for a starting berth in the United first team as well.
With a tough trip to Watford to come at the weekend, I would not be surprised to see the likes of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic rested, but I would hope Mourinho takes the competition seriously enough to ensure he names a blended XI of nailed-on first-team regulars like Paul Pogba, Luke Shaw and Eric Baily alongside the likes of Schneiderlin and Rashford.
Limited rotation gives better context for the players coming into the team and a better picture of how they would perform in the Premier League among the same players.
Whether or not Mourinho opts for limited or full rotation remains unclear, but even if the Europa League is not high on his list of priorities, it will still provide the best window of opportunity this season to players wanting to break into the first team for regular Premier League action.