Manchester United fixture pile-up could get worse in the next two weeks

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Manchester United are as good as through to the Europa League knockout stages, but don’t expect Erik ten Hag to start making wholesale changes this week.

United host Sheriff Tiraspol at Old Trafford on Thursday knowing a point will see them through, but just getting out of the group isn’t good enough this season.

Ten Hag has placed greater importance on winning the group, with the knowledge that top spot will see United return to European action in March in the last-16 of the Europa League. Finish second and they will enter a play-off round in February.

Not only will that mean two extra fixtures in an already congested calendar, but a two-legged tie against a team finishing third in the Champions League, which could be a European heavyweight such as Barcelona, Juventus or AC Milan.

So more than ever there is merit in winning the group, which makes the 1-0 defeat at home to Real Sociedad on matchday one of the Europa League potentially very costly indeed.

United have been playing catch-up ever since and it’s little surprise that the teams from the Premier League and La Liga have taken this group by the scruff of the neck. If United beat Sheriff on Thursday and Real Sociedad win in Cyprus, then the meeting in San Sebastien next week will be defining.

Ten Hag’s side would have to go to the Basque country and win 2-0 to reclaim the top spot but given the fixture congestion and the backlog already facing United, it will be seen as a result worth going for. That makes it unlikely there will be many changes either this week or next in the Europa League.

It’s not an ideal scenario for Ten Hag that he can’t rotate as he might have wished, especially with the World Cup on the horizon and the unpredictable nature of the effect that will have on the second half of the season.

At some time in the New Year there will be rearranged games to play against Crystal Palace and Leeds United, both of which were called off following the death of the Queen in September. It will be easier to slot those games if United have free weekends in February, rather than being engaged in European action. That makes the next two Thursday evenings more important than they would have been before the changes to the Europa League.

United are actually in action for three successive Thursday nights now, with Aston Villa the visitors for the Carabao Cup third round on November 10. That is one fixture where Ten Hag might make changes.

If his side get through that he will add another game in to the calendar right at the end of the World Cup. While United don’t currently return to action until December 27, they will play a Carabao Cup fourth-round tie on December 20 or 21.

If they reach that stage of the competition then that team is likely to be made up of players who didn’t feature in the World Cup or who maybe had an early exit in Qatar.

It all adds up to a seriously congested fixture calendar for United. This was already an unprecedented season with the presence of the World Cup in November and December, but those two postponements have only added to the complications and, in the process, made finishing top of their Europa League group all the more important.

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