After a straightforward night out in the FA Cup last night as Manchester United cruised past Derby County 3-0 at Pride Park, it is now crunch time as the Red Devils enter the most important week of their season.
The next three games are about as important as they come and will be vital to United’s hopes of securing Champions League football next season.
That, in turn, is more crucial than ever for the Reds, with major sponsors Adidas having a penalty clause in their contract which reduces their payments by 30% should United fail to qualify for the Champions League two years in succession.
There are two routes to qualification, by finishing in the top four (or top five if Manchester City’s ban is upheld) in the Premier League and by winning the Europa League.
To do the former, Ole Solskjaer’s men will almost certainly need to get something out of the next two games against City on Sunday and Spurs a week later.
Sunday’s Manchester derby holds a particular dilemma for Solskjaer – whether to revert to the three at the back formation that he has tended to employ against stronger sides or to opt for a more attacking 4-2-3-1 lineup. Would he see a draw against Pep Guardiola’s men as a point gained or two points dropped?
A week later will see the Reds head down the M6 for a tough away fixture against José Mourinho’s Spurs, who themselves are vying for those vital Champions League places. It is the very definition of a six pointer.
Meanwhile, United’s biggest rivals for fourth spot Chelsea and Wolves have, on paper at least, two relatively easy games. Chelsea have a home tie against Everton and a trip to Birmingham to face struggling Aston Villa. Wolves face Brighton at home and West Ham in London.
If Chelsea and Wolves were to win both their games, two draws against City and Spurs – something that would be considered a reasonable outcome under normal circumstances – could leave the Reds seven points away from fourth spot and four away from fifth with only eight games left to play.
Sandwiched in between those fixtures is the small matter of a trip to Austria to play Lask in the first leg of the Europa League round of 16 tie. Whilst everyone is patting each other on the back at the luck of that draw, it would be dangerous to underestimate a side who are six points clear in their domestic league, ahead of better known names such as Red Bull Salzburg and Rapid Vienna.
Winning the Europa League is arguably the easier route to the Champions League but the danger is that Solskjaer will fall between two stools. The balance in terms of team and formation selection and tactical setup over these next three games will be critical.
With Mauricio Pochettino waiting in the wings, it is also a week that could determine the manager’s own future at Manchester United.
Another year of mediocrity, of scraping around in the Europa League, of financial constraints and of struggling to sign top players because they want to play against the best, or a return to Europe’s elite with the coffers flushed and new signings knocking at the door. The next week may not just define United’s season, it could define United’s future for years to come.
United are through to the FA Cup quarter final after beating Derby last night. But how much do you know about the Red Devils’ history in the FA Cup? Take our quiz below to find out!