Jose Mourinho suggested last weekend that he had considered abandoning a push for the Premier League’s top four to focus on European competition and failure to beat Sunderland on Sunday may see that pledge become a reality.
United’s best hope of qualifying for next season’s Champions League increasingly appears to be by winning the Europa League, with the first leg of their quarter-final against Anderlecht in Belgium on Thursday.
Mourinho’s team face a congested fixture list — the visit to Sunderland will be their third of nine matches during April.
The first two ended in disappointing home draws against West Bromwich Albion and Everton, leaving United four points adrift of the top four with a game in hand.
At least, Mourinho has his leading scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic back.
The former Paris Saint-Germain striker was not at his best against Everton on his return from a three-match domestic ban, but showed the calmness required to convert the 94th-minute penalty that secured United a point.
Ibrahimovic, with 27 goals in all competitions for United this season, is a reassuring presence in an attack that is otherwise struggling.
Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford have scored 21 goals between them this season, but only nine of those have come in the league.
Rashford’s last league goal was on September 24, and he has looked desperately short of confidence lately.
A failure to convert chances is certainly a factor in United’s inability to close on the top four.
In the two matches against West Brom and Everton, they managed a total of 36 efforts on goal, yet scored only once.
“Looking to next season, I think it’s a good feeling to know we haven’t lost many matches,” Mourinho said.
“It’s good to know we’re 20 matches undefeated in the Premier League. Ten draws in 10 matches is 10 points; five victories and five defeats in 10 matches is 15 points. But the points are the reality.”