Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho is clearly taking the Europa League seriously this season given how strong his starting line-up was on Thursday evening against St Etienne in the first leg of their last 32 tie with the Ligue One club where the Reds established a three-goal advantage to take to France next week.
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic once again proved why he was one of the best summer signings in Europe as he bagged a hat-trick at Old Trafford which brought up his 23rd goal of the season in all competitions. The 35-year-old has scored more goals against St Etienne than he has any other club in his professional career and he once again showed a liking for playing Les Verts.
If United win the Europa League this season they will gain automatic qualification into the Champions League regardless of where they finish in the Premier League. With one foot already in the last 16 of the European competition, United have a very good chance of going all the way and it could prove to be their best chance of reaching the Champions League next season.
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United have never won the Europa League as they are used to playing in the premier European tournament where they are three-time winners having won the European Cup in 1968 and the Champions League in 1999 and 2008. Mourinho though was successful in 2003 with Porto when it was branded as the UEFA Cup.
If the Reds are to gain a spot into the Champions League from the Premier League they are going to need to keep up their good form until the end of the season. Chelsea look to have run away with the title therefore it leaves three places for five teams to chase for the remaining Champions League spaces. United can be backed in the Premier League betting at evens to finish in the top four.
Manchester City have improved their form recently and are now second in the Premier League table. Pep Guardiola seems to have sorted out one or two of their problems as they have won their last four games in the competition, including a 2-0 victory over Bournemouth recently.
Tottenham and Arsenal currently occupy the third and fourth places respectively. The two north London clubs have a two-point advantage on United at this stage. Both of those sides are not in great form and could both be eliminated from Europe at this current round of fixtures as they are trailing in respective ties.
Liverpool are one point above United in fifth and had an excellent 2-0 victory over Spurs just before the break for the FA Cup. With no European football to worry about, Jurgen Klopp will hope his side can steal a march on the other clubs who are pushing for a top-four finish and remain in either the Champions League or the Europa League.
A top-four finish will still be the aim for United but Mourinho will not underestimate the Europa League as they are the favourites to win that competition and that would be enough for them to meet their minimum objectives this season.