Manchester United still have two paths to the Champions League for next season. But their travails in one could lead to battle fatigue in the other as they seek a critical three points against champions-elect Chelsea at Old Trafford this Easter Sunday.
United (15-12-3) enter the weekend in fifth place, four points behind eternal rivals Manchester City for the final Champions League spot with a match in hand. But they are also chasing a spot in Europe's most prestigious club competition through the Europa League, and Jose Mourinho's squad returned from Belgium with the upper hand despite settling for a 1-1 draw against Anderlecht on Thursday in the first leg of their quarterfinal matchup.
The road goal means United can sit back defensively if they grab an early lead, but by no means is anything given for a team that has struggled to put away opponents all season. Such was the case again Thursday when Anderlecht leveled the match on 86 minutes, canceling out Henrikh Mkhitaryan's goal in the 37th.
"The result is positive - to play at home with an advantage, to start the game with an advantage, it is a good result but I think the result should be much better," Mourinho said. "We can only blame ourselves because we had an easy game to play in the second half and we didn't play in attack with that instinct.
"We have to kill matches. We had chances, control, but we don't score goals; we risk. There was lots of space to kill, good chances."
Mourinho again called out his attacking corps of Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Anthony Martial, calling their efforts in the final third Thursday "similar" but also picking them out for praise defensively.
Yet the grind of this season is slowly removing Mourinho's margin of error when it comes to roster maintenance on a match-to-match basis. Juan Mata is likely out for the rest of the season after undergoing groin surgery, and Wayne Rooney is struggling to overcome an ankle issue.
Perhaps most worrisome is that central defenders Eric Bailly and Marcus Rojo are Mourinho's lone options, and he must ride them the rest of the way.
"There is nothing I can do," Mourinho said. "They have to go until the limits. There is no other choice. There is no other chance … in this moment, we are in this situation where we have two matches in hand and if we win both matches, we are in the top four. We have to fight for every game, so it's amazing mentality by Eric and by Marcos, but we have to go."
Lost in the midst of Manchester United's European plight is Mourinho facing his former team for the third time this season. Chelsea (24-3-4) still have a seven-point lead over Tottenham Hotspur heading into the weekend in what essentially is a two-team race for the title, and they took care of a 10-man Manchester United squad last month to record a 1-0 victory in the FA Cup quarterfinals on a goal by N'Golo Kante in the 51st minute.
If Mourinho is to get any extra sense of satisfaction in beating his former charges this weekend, he's doing a spectacular job of denying it.
"You say it's emotional, but for me, it's a game," he insisted. "It's one more game. No different for me. Not at all. They are top for some reasons - it's not just because they are fresh. It is also because they have individual quality. It's because they have collective quality. They have a certain style of play. They stick to it. They do it very well. So they are a strong team."
Manchester United are unbeaten in their last 21 league games (11-10-0) but also have been held to draws in five of their last six at Old Trafford. They have shipped just 11 goals in 16 home contests in league play.
Chelsea have won back-to-back games after their shocking home loss to Crystal Palace and maintained their comfortable lead atop the table by winning 3-1 at Bournemouth last weekend. Eden Hazard followed up an own goal with one of his own on 20 minutes, and Marcos Alonso restored a two-goal lead in the 68th minute to make sure the Blues came away with all three points.
They have just two losses in 25 leagues matches (21-2-2) since Antonio Conte switched to a 3-4-3 formation full-time, and with both Hazard and Kante short-listed for the PFA Players' Player of the Year award, the fruits of that decision have come to bare.
"It's great for them," Conte said. "It's a great achievement to receive this nomination. I hope for them to be the best player of the year, and also above all to win the league. These awards are very important but the most important thing is to match these combinations.
"I don't like to make a choice between two of my players. I'm pleased because it's a fight between two of my players and also four other players from other teams. I want to see who is the winner."
This is Conte's first trip to Old Trafford as a manager - as a player he scored in the first leg of the 1999 Champions League semifinals for Juventus, but Manchester United equalised late in that match and overcame a two-goal deficit to advance 4-3 on aggregate en route to their treble.
While his team has dealt well with the pressure of being front-runners for most of the season, Conte still has a healthy respect for Manchester United and is especially concerned about the damage Ibrahimovic can do since the Swede is tied for fourth in the Premier League with 17 goals alongside Chelsea counterpart Diego Costa.
"Zlatan is in the top form of his career," Conte said. "He's not only a finisher but he plays for the team. For me he is one of the best players in the world. When he receives the ball he is dangerous. My players must pay great attention to stop him and also stop the whole team, not only one player."
Conte is trying to become the second manager to defeat Mourinho three times in a season. Pep Guardiola did so for Barcelona in the 2011-12 season while Mourinho was at Real Madrid, but one of those three victories came in the Super Cup, which is La Liga's unofficial start to the season similar to the Community Shield.
Last month's FA Cup clash at points devolved into a cynical affair, with United players fouling Hazard like he was a piñata for much of the first half - Ander Herrera picked up his two yellow cards a quarter-hour apart before being given his marching orders on 35 minutes.
The first match between the teams at Stamford Bridge, however, was Mourinho's worst as a Premier League manager as Chelsea humbled United 4-0 on Oct. 24. Pedro and Gary Cahill scored in the first half before Hazard and Kante netted eight minutes apart midway through the second in what was the Red Devils' last league loss.
It was the worst scoreline for United in this rivalry since Chelsea flattened them 5-0 on Oct. 3, 1999. Manchester United are winless in their last 12 (0-5-7) against Chelsea in all competitions and have four draws and one loss in the last five at "The Theatre of Dreams."