Man United face a big week; Mourinho must get selections right
HUDDERSFIELD, England -- Three games in three competitions over eight days is enough and would qualify as a season-defining period for most clubs, and Manchester United are certainly in the midst of their most important group of fixtures this term.
Saturday's FA Cup fifth-round win at Huddersfield Town means it's "one down, two to go" and the 2-0 victory, courtesy of two Romelu Lukaku goals, avenged a 2-1 defeat at the same ground in the Premier League last October. In the subsequent draw, United were handed a quarterfinal tie at home to Brighton in four weeks' time.
But as the United team bus pulled out of the John Smith's Stadium for the short journey back to Manchester on Saturday night, thoughts will have turned to more immediate, tougher challenges.
Next up is a trip to Sevilla on Wednesday for a Champions League round-of-16 first leg against the team currently sitting fifth in La Liga. Four days later, Chelsea visit Old Trafford; both they and United must bounce back from recent league wobbles to banish fears of missing out on a top-four finish.
If United win both games, their landscape will look brighter, even if neighbours Manchester City tick off the first trophy in their pursuit if a quadruple by beating Arsenal in the Carabao Cup final on the same Sunday that United host Chelsea.
But as United get set to take on such challenges, are they in prime condition to do so? The answer is no, because of injuries, loss of form and question marks over the makeup of Mourinho's team; questions that have been asked more frequently in recent weeks, in the wake of uncharacteristically shapeless defeats to Tottenham and Newcastle.
There are positives, however, most notably the return of Eric Bailly, whose stoppage-time introduction as a substitute at Huddersfield ended his three-month absence after an ankle surgery. The Ivory Coast defender has been missed, so his return can only be welcomed by his manager. The 23-year-old is likely to play in Spain, but Mourinho will need to be cautious with the former Villarreal man to avoid another setback.
Alexis Sanchez gives United greater potency following his January arrival from Arsenal, and he showed glimpses of a promising partnership with Lukaku against Huddersfield, setting up the second goal as part of a rapid counter. Sanchez adds to his new club's attacking quality, so he too will give Mourinho positivity going into both games.
But then there is the enigma that is Paul Pogba. The French midfielder missed the trip to west Yorkshire with an illness to cap what has been a bad month and his form is a worry. Indeed, there is even a question as to whether he will be available on Wednesday at the Estadio Sanchez Pizjuan.
"I don't know," Mourinho said after Saturday's game. "I didn't see him. Yesterday he was working normally with us. We prepared for the game, we gave the last touches in the tactical, positional play, we gave the last touches on the set plays and I told the players the team. [Pogba] was in the team but, this morning, he was not feeling right to play. So he's ill and now we have to wait to see what is going on."
The Pogba question will also resurface ahead of the Chelsea game, in which his attacking qualities will be needed against Antonio Conte's men. His defensive lapses are the issue to address, but if Ander Herrera is fit to take on the man-marking job he did on Eden Hazard last season, Pogba's shortcomings will be mitigated.
Pogba is central to all that United do and his presence in the team adds fluidity to their attacking play. But if Mourinho gets his team right -- he also has a dilemma over whether to go with Ashley Young and Luke Shaw at left-back -- then United can win both games.
But this is when the manager's decisions will define United's season: Make the wrong ones and Mourinho and his team could face a long, drawn-out end to the campaign. The club's big week started well at Huddersfield but, to keep everyone happy, a step up is required.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_