Monday, 5 April 2021

Solskjaer's United on track for Champions League qualification


Mason Greenwood's late winner against Brighton propelled Manchester United to within touching distance of a second consecutive top four finish.

It was a far from impressive performance and, in truth, a draw probably would have been fair but we got the job done and it's a big, big result in the context of our season and given what happened elsewhere. 

Having only sealed the deal on the final day of last season's protracted campaign, the Reds look set to do so with a bit to spare this time around. The win over the south coast Seagulls completed an ideal sequence of results over the Easter weekend in which our top four rivals Chelsea, Tottenham and Leicester all failed to win.

Thomas Tuchel's Blues fell victim to one of the biggest shocks of this unpredictable season with a 5-2 home defeat to struggling West Brom. Despite their stunning salvo at Stamford Bridge, it seems unlikely Big Sam's side will stave off the threat of relegation but it was an extraordinary upset as they brought Tuchel's unbeaten start in the Chelsea dugout to a spectacular halt and did the Reds a significant and timely favour in the process. 

Leicester, in third, went down to a 2-0 home defeat to champions elect Manchester City before Arsenal loanee Joe Willock, of all people, struck late at St James Park to rescue a potentially priceless point for struggling Newcastle against Spurs. Joelinton had put Steve Bruce's Magpies ahead only for a Harry Kane brace to turn the game around for Jose Mourinho's men. But their late lapse cost them the chance of moving into the top four and again raised questions over Mourinho's suitability for the White Hart Lane job. 

Liverpool's 3-0 win at Arsenal resurrected their top four ambitions and put them firmly back into contention despite a poor season by their recent standards. Jurgen Klopp's side are level on points with Tottenham (49) but have a slightly worse goal difference. West Ham also have 49 points and are seventh ahead of their game at mid-table Wolves on Easter Monday. 

So what does it all mean? United consolidate second position, stretching their advantage over closest rivals Leicester to four points and giving us valuable breathing space. Eleven ahead of fifth placed Spurs and nine ahead of Chelsea in fourth with eight games left, Solskjaer's side have 60 points and need seven more from their remaining fixtures to improve on last season's tally of 66. It would require a minor mathematical miracle and a significant leap of the imagination for us to miss out from this position. Three more wins should be enough to be sure of a top four finish and secure a second consecutive Champions League qualification (via the league) for the first time since the retirement of Sir Alex. Only a Devon-Loch style denouement will see us miss out from this position. It hasn't always been easy on the eye, but - as the season reaches its pivotal stage - the result is all that matters. 

The Reds were third last season, so an improved points tally and second place this time would represent a clear upward trajectory. An legitimate argument could be made that second is no different from third as the same prize is on offer, but to finish as runners up gives you a status and the honour of being "best of the rest." With an eleven point cushion - although that could become eight should West Ham and Everton win their games in hand - it also gives us a little bit of wriggle room.

United's destiny went to the final day in 2019-20 and we paid the price of it with rotated sides in the cups costing a chance of silverware. Here, though, we're almost in a position where we can flip that scenario around and focus on prioritising the Europa League as we chase an elusive first piece of silverware under Solskjaer. If that means some understrength sides in the remaining league games then so be it -  we'd all settle for a dip in the latter stages of the league if it means European glory in Gdansk next month. 

United play Mourinho's Tottenham, Burnley, Leeds, Liverpool, Villa, Leicester, Fulham and Wolves in the run-in, a favourable fixture list that should provide enough mileage to get over the line. 

Let's hope we finish with a flourish and therefore avoid the same squeaky bum time finale we had to endure last term. 

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