Manchester United go in to the final game of the Premier League season with nothing to play for. The dull 0-0 draw against West Ham secured their place as second in the table, with Tottenham Hotspur four points behind in third and Liverpool six behind in sixth.
Phil Jones claimed that the players were “not proud and shouting from the rooftops about it”, as you expect given how far behind champions Manchester City they are, but supporters should take some satisfaction in the progress they have made.
United were in with a decent chance of finishing in the top four last season, with a League Cup already in the bag, but Jose Mourinho made the sensible choice of prioritising the Europa League. Either outcome would have secured Champions League football for the season ahead, yet to do so on the back of winning a trophy instead of merely finishing fourth was certainly the more enjoyable option for the fans.
When they progressed to the semi-finals of the Europa League, United were four points behind City, who had played a game more, and six points behind Liverpool, who had played two games more.
Yet for the final weeks of the season, Mourinho opted to play fringe and Reserve players in the games, as he threw all his eggs in to one basket. United then finished sixth in the table and won the Europa League. Job done.
To go from top four contenders to clear in second shows the improvements that United have made this season. If they can win the FA Cup next weekend against Chelsea, that will represent a good season for a club that is still trying to recovery from the huge hole left by Sir Alex Ferguson when he retired.
Still, United have the Watford game to play first and Mourinho has confirmed some of the players who will start.
For the last game of the 2016-17 season, with the Europa League three days away, Mourinho opted to give the youngsters a go. Timothy Fosu-Mensah (currently on loan at Crystal Palace), Demetri Mitchell (on loan at Hearts), Axel Tuanzebe (on loan at Aston Villa), Josh Harrop (since sold to Preston) and Scott McTominay (a member of the current first team squad) were all in the starting line-up, with Angel Gomes making an appearance from the bench, becoming the youngest player to wear the shirt since Duncan Edwards. That team still managed an impressive 2-0 win against Crystal Palace.
Mourinho has revealed he will be playing a much stronger starting team for Watford, with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford recalled following the criticism he dished out after their performance against Brighton. Daley Blind, Eric Bailly and Juan Mata will also play.
Sergio Romero will make his first league appearance of the season, with Golden Glove winner David de Gea rested for the final.
The first team players will be hoping they can do something to catch Mourinho’s attention that will mean they get playing time at Wembley, but all eyes will be on Michael Carrick, who will be playing his final game at Old Trafford.
“Carrick is going to start the match as captain but he is not going to end the match because I want him to leave that pitch alone,” Mourinho said. “I want him to feel what the Manchester United supporters feel in relation to him. I’m not as sad as I normally am when my players end their careers because he is going to be with us and even closer to me than he was as a player. So it’s just an emotional moment. He’ll start the match and I’ll make the change in some moments so he can leave the pitch alone.”
Carrick made the step up to coach in the last few months but that will be his permanent role at the club from next season.
Having won the FA Cup for the first time two years ago, he will be hoping to add another winners’ medal to the collection next week before officially hanging his boots up. Having played the full 90 minutes in both the fourth and fifth round wins over Yeovil and Huddersfield, he’s play his part in the success.
But first, Watford, and a chance of United supporters to say goodbye to a great servant to the club, and watch those hopeful for an appearance in the final playing their socks off.