Manchester United will not sacrifice the Europa League to strengthen their Premier League title ambitions, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is planning to rotate his squad for continental competition.
After a two-month break European action resumes this week, with United relegated to Thursday night football in the Europa League after their disappointing Champions League group stage exit.
That will also mean more games for United, with 32 teams involved in the Europa League knockout rounds and only 16 in the Champions League.
But Solskjaer wants success in Europe and while rotation will remain a key part of his plans for this season, he doesn’t intend to throw the towel in on the Europa League, despite seeing his side within five points of Manchester City in the Premier League.
United travel to West Brom in the Premier League today and then face Real Sociedad in the first leg of their last-32 tie in Turin on Thursday, with the game moved due to Covid-19 travel restrictions in Spain.
Solskjaer will make alterations for that first leg, knowing he can play a stronger team at Old Trafford a week later if the tie needs salvaging.
“I can understand that but it doesn’t work that way. You can’t just prioritise some games,” Solskjaer said of the idea of abandoning Europe to focus on domestic glory.
“Of course there will be rotation and the team will change. You have to freshen things up when you play Thursday and then Sunday and it’s impossible in today’s circumstances to play the same 11 every game.
“You could only do that if you were playing once a week. We will make decisions but there will be chances in Europe for other players and if it takes us the whole way, brilliant. If not then let’s look at it then because we have two legs, two bites at the cherry.”
United’s return to Europa League action will further stretch a squad who have played more games than anyone else since football resumed post-lockdown in June.
The win against West Ham in the FA Cup on Tuesday was United’s 50th game since June 19 last year and the relentless schedule shows no signs of slowing down.
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Manchester United beat West Ham 1-0 in the FA Cup, thanks to Scott McTominay’s extra-time winner.
United sealed a spot in the cup quarter-finals with victory over David Moyes’ side at Old Trafford, and now they travel to West Brom in the league on Sunday.
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Outside of international breaks United are yet to have a free midweek since their season began in mid-September and while there is currently a free week at the start of March, it will be taken up by Europa League last-16 action of United progress past the La Liga side.
Solskjaer has praised his players for the way we’ve adapted to a difficult season and explained how he’s trying to make training as much fun as possible to ensure his squad don’t become too jaded.
“It is a strange time and a difficult season and yes, the demands on the players especially here on Man United. We’ve been in every single competition and not missed out on a game because the Carabao Cup final hasn’t been played yet,” he said.
“I’m impressed by the standards the players have kept not only in the training environment but also in games. It’s understandable once in a while you will have a slow start or get tired near the end or have an off day and make a mistake. It’s about learning from your mistake but sometimes you can’t explain it because it’s just circumstances.
“It’s a difficult time for everyone. Players are in the public eye and the headlines every two or three days and of course, they will get tired. Normally I’d say go away for a week and freshen yourself up but they can’t because of travel bans. I’d say ‘take the family, take your wife, have a weekend away,’ but they can’t.
“So you have to make sure the environment at the training ground is a positive one, somewhere they want to come to and enjoy being here when they are. Once in a while there are cheers. When Edinson hears the words ‘tomorrow off’ there’s a big smile on his face. Of course you have to try and be sensible and clever with days off and staying together. All those are decisions you have to make.
“I have been impressed by everyone I must say. Maybe it has helped some clubs, but I like to think our players don’t go out as much as some at others. So maybe it has been more of an advantage for others. Suddenly you see some players playing well when you’re thinking ‘he might be going out a lot more’ and see the difference. I was boring. I’d still play the same whatever. It would’ve helped a few of my teammates maybe, but I won’t hang them out to dry.”