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Off Premier League pace, Champions League now more important for Manchester United

16 points behind rivals Manchester City, United’s Champions League against Sevilla on Wednesday is even more important that it would usually be. (REUTERS)
LONDON: It is easy to forget that Manchester United lie second in the Premier League table. They are averaging more than two points per game which, in any normal season, would have them in the thick of a title race.
But this is not a normal season and the fact that Manchester City stand 16 points clear means that the pressures are different. Clubs can accept that one other team has a freakishly good campaign, but it does mean they have to perform in other competitions and that means that United’s Champions League against Sevilla on Wednesday is even more important that it would usually be.
There is no reason to panic for United, but there are plenty of reasons for doubt. United’s performances against other members of the big six have been disappointing — a home defeat to City, away defeats at Chelsea and Tottenham, a stalemate at Liverpool and a fortuitous win at Arsenal.
Neither of the two biggest signings United have made under Mourinho, Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba, have entirely convinced, and neither Henrikh Mkhitaryan nor Victor Lindelof made much of an impact. Claims that Pep Guardiola and City are buying their way to success might be looked on more sympathetically if United had not seemingly wasted so
much money.
The signing of Alexis Sanchez in a swap deal initially looked like good business, and all the more so given it took the Chilean out of the hands of City, who clearly wanted him, but already there are questions about how he fits in the side and whether his arrival may have destabilized the promising link-up of Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial. Increasingly, the squad looks a mishmash put together with little thought to a cohesive product.
That, in turn, has prompted the sort of background grumble of discontent that often characterises the later periods of Mourinho’s spells at clubs.
His relationship with Pogba, who missed Saturday’s FA Cup win at Huddersfield with illness, appears strained, while there has been talk of a furious row after the league defeat at Newcastle.
In a sense, the detail is less important than the fact the stories are appearing at all: Happy dressing-rooms tend not to leak.
With Chelsea to come for United at the weekend, this is a crunch period, not merely in terms of this season but also the future. It is unlikely (it would require a Chelsea win by three goals) but it is not inconceivable that United could be down to fourth by Sunday evening.
But this season already feels as though it is not about the league — a failure to finish in the top four would be catastrophic for United.
It’s the Champions League that might offer salvation. They do not need to win it — although were Mourinho to become the first manager to lift the trophy with three different sides, it would silence a lot of his critics — but they do need some big performances and big results. And that is why Sevilla are so dangerous.
United are expected to win against the side fifth in La Liga, who are undergoing a period of turmoil after the departures in the summer of both their sporting director Monchi, for Roma, and their coach Jorge Sampaoli, for Argentina. They have since sacked another coach, Eduardo Berizzo. But they remain an awkward side. United cannot save their season tonight, but they could ensure it ends in failure.
It is not entirely clear yet whether Paul Pogba will have recovered from illness in time to face Sevilla but if he does start, he will be the center of attention. He reportedly wants to play on the left side of a midfield three and is frustrated by the 4-2-3-1 preferred by Mourinho. It was clear for France during Euro 2016 that he chafes at the restrictions of being one of the two holding players, but perhaps lacks the tight technical skill with his back to goal to be the advanced central midfielder. Sevilla, both under Berizzo and his replacement Vincenzo Montella, have a flexibility in midfield, but essentially have a similar triangle with Ever Banega (or Guido Pizarro, who has stepped in since Banega suffered a thigh injury) as a deep-lying playmaker and Nolito or Franco Vazquez as the Number 10, with Steven N’zonzi playing the restrained shuttling role in a far more responsible manner than Pogba has of late.