For the second season in a row Manchester United have made sure they will pass the 60 game mark in all competitions.
Having played 61 matches last season, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side will make it 60 with the two-legged Europa League semi-final against Roma, with the tantalising prospect of a 61st to be played in Gdansk at the end of May.
To be playing an extra 22 or 23 games to your league commitments for two seasons running is an impressive sign of cup consistency, but to reach more than 120 games across two campaigns and fail to come away with a trophy to show for all that hard work will be a bitter pill to swallow.
For the fifth time in 15 months United are preparing for a semi-final after they cruised past the challenge of Granada in the Europa League quarter-finals. Nobody in Solskjaer’s squad needs reminding of how the previous four ended up.
At least the FA Cup quarter-final defeat to Leicester City last month provided a change of departure point for United, although it’s probably befitting of their tag of nearly men that they missed out on a semi-final slot when the draw was welcoming as it’s likely to get in Southampton.
That’s certainly not the case in the Europa League, where Serie A side Roma lie in wait. They might have been the only Italian side to reach the quarter-finals of either European competition this season, and they might only be seventh in Serie A, but they will still pose a stern test to United, especially as winning this competition looks like their most likely avenue back into the Champions League.
For United, the thought of defeat is hardly worth considering. Solskjaer attempted to take the shine off silverware last month with his comments about trophies being an “ego thing”, but there’s no doubt that if he won a medal as Manchester United manager the polish would be out on a regular basis. He also knows how valuable winning a trophy could be for a side that haven’t really got that experience.
Winning trophies can become a habit. The feeling of success with your teammates like a drug you can’t get enough of. Get over the line once and you know it can be done again and again.
But United are in danger of suffering the reverse syndrome at the moment. Stumble with the line in sight again and again and it will feel like you have two left-foot when the trophy becomes so tantalisingly close you can almost touch it.
Manchester City (twice), Chelsea and Sevilla are United’s roll call of semi-final setbacks. There’s not necessarily any disgrace in losing those games, but they’ve had their opportunities as well, especially when taking an early lead against Sevilla in last season’s one-legged Europa League semi-final.
It has to be a different story now. Solskjaer is right that progress will ultimately be judged on league position, but challenging for the title is easier to do when you have the belief that success as a team can bring. Win the Europa League, one of the largest trophies there is, and it could be worth more psychologically than its weight in silver. Lose and it’s another body blow to this team.
To play 120 games across two seasons and end with nothing to show for it but a league table printout as proof of progress but would be painful for United. They should be applauded for continuing to manoeuvre themselves into the business end of almost every competition they enter. But the time to take the next step is upon them.