For most Manchester United supporters, finishing outside the Premier League’s top-four for a second successive season is an unthinkable prospect.
But with United six points adrift of fourth-placed Chelsea and among a hefty contingent of teams vying for the final Champions League spot, it has become a distinct possibility.
The thought of United lining up in the Europa League next season is a repulsive one for the Red Devils faithful – and without the allure of elite European competition, the chances of world-class talent being brought to Old Trafford are significantly reduced.
That being said, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will have to do everything in his power to avoid that eventuality – but would the best course of action be to abandon United’s league endeavours, and turn attentions elsewhere?
When United won the Europa League in the 2016-17 season, it was widely accepted that it was down to then-manager Jose Mourinho’s decision to focus primarily on the second-tier European competition, rather than the Premier League.
As United progressed further in the Europa League, it became more and more apparent that their best chance of securing Champions League football would be by winning the competition, rather than finishing in the top-four of the league.
Mourinho played his strongest teams in Europe while downplaying the importance of the Premier League, and was dully rewarded with Champions League football – as well as a trophy.
This could be something Soskjaer replicates this season, in the hope that he can tempt top-class players to United in the summer and then potentially challenge for the league next campaign – something Mourinho failed to do.
Although it is perhaps a little too early for United to down tools in the race for the top-four, their first knockout game in the Europa League is fast approaching.
Solskjaer’s side come up against Belgian side Club Brugge who will by no means be a walkover – they have lost just once in the league all season.
United cannot afford to take the Brugge game lightly, and their squad’s strength-in-depth will be tested once again.
Solskjaer’s options are set to be bolstered however ahead of the round of 32 tie – Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba are scheduled to return after long injury lay-offs, while new signings Bruno Fernandes and Odion Ighalo will provide added quality.
When it is considered that United will have four additional, top-class players at their disposal when the Europa League recommences, there is the possibility that they will indeed have the squad to compete on multiple fronts.
United have been dreadfully inconsistent in the league this campaign, yet are still in touching distance of fourth place – largely without the influence of those four players.
With the likes of Pogba and Fernandes starting regularly, United could make a real push towards the top-four while squad-players like Ighalo help them maintain a run in the Europa League.
Only time will tell whether Solskajer is either forced into a top-four dogfight after elimination from Europe, or whether he takes a risk by putting all his eggs into the Europa League basket.
The concern for United fans is whether Solskjaer has the tactical nous to win the Europa League – Mourinho was renowned for his ability to achieve results, regardless of performance – something that is vital in a knockout competition.
Solskjaer would be taking a huge risk if he opts for that route into the Champions League, and anything other than lifting the trophy would be seen as a massive error of judgment.
The coming weeks may see United’s boss forced into a decision sooner than he would like – the Red Devils play Chelsea next in the Premier League as they look to close the gap to fourth place, before heading to Brugge just three days later.
A loss to Chelsea would be a serious blow to United’s top-four aspirations, but the game against Brugge could offer a lifeline to their Champions League hopes.
Whatever the results of the two games Solskjaer will be presented with a dilemma, but two wins would make that dilemma far less painful to solve.