How will United end the season?
Just when you thought football could not treat the richest clubs any more favourably, coronavirus happened and here we are. Suddenly, teams who rely on energy, adrenaline and atmosphere to stymie more technical and talented teams have no crowd off which to feed and no fitness on which to rely. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the games are coming quickly, it’s bastard hot, and managers with huge squads have five substitutions with which to get their own way. It’s a lot.
Nonetheless, Manchester United were extremely impressive in eliminating Sheffield United last night – just as they have been in winning nine and drawing four of the 13 games which have followed an abominable home defeat to Burnley midway through January. Though there is still laughter to be enjoyed at their expense, they are no longer the Premier League’s cheapest gag, and increasingly there is a sense that something is building.
The targets for the end of the season are clear – win the FA Cup, win the Europa League, qualify for the Champions League – but the routes to them are less so. United will expect to beat Norwich on Saturday, but know that if they are to draw level with Arsenal as the cup’s most successful team, they will probably need to beat Manchester City. On the one hand, this is something they have already done three times this season; on the other, doing it four times seems unlikely – especially given the form City are in, the players City have back, and the bloodless nature of the post-lockdown environment. The less edge a game has, the even more likely a Pep Guardiola side are to win it.
When United won the Europa League in 2017, they could not have asked for a more favourable field – nor a manager more suited to negotiating it. The better teams – such that they were – knocked each other out as United avoided them, until the final handed them an Ajax side who were the perfect foil for José Mourinho’s exhibition spoiling. But this season, it is not like that. Inter, Bayer Leverkusen, and Wolves are better than any team United beat in completing their set, while Roma and Sevilla are useful too. Though the draw may be kind once again, things will become complicated eventually.
Otherwise, United are, most likely, one of three teams chasing two Champions League places. Of all the things Uefa need, a shit-slinging fight with Abu Dhabi is not one of them, so the chances of them handing out a punishment without being certain City were bang to rights is extremely slim, which is to say that fifth place will probably suffice. Whether Spurs can insert themselves into the contest remains to be seen, but four points and an inferior goal difference is a significant gap to close in seven games.
United also have an exceptionally friendly run-in – they finish away to Leicester, whose third place remains a target, but before would expect to take maximum points before that. The chances are that they will not, just as the chances are that Chelsea will not beat City and Liverpool and that Wolves will not win every game before visiting Stamford Bridge on the final day, which is to say that they have good chance.
Though many matchgoers will be more concerned about winning a trophy, the priority for United’s board will be to make the Champions League. This will give them a good shot at signing Jadon Sancho to fill the right-wing void that has existed since Nani left, and if they can find the right midfielder to support Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes too, along with a high-level partner for Harry Maguire, they will have a first XI capable of beating any team anywhere in the world. Next season will probably be too soon to sustain a title challenge, especially given the points tally now required to win it, but it is clear that they are finally proceeding in that general direction.