As things stand, Manchester United are on course to miss out on Champions League football for the second time in two seasons. The Red Devils currently find themselves in fifth place and three points away from a qualification spot, but fourth-placed local rivals Manchester City boast a game in hand.
Likewise, not much has suggested this current United side are worthy of finishing in the Premier League’s top four or that they’re capable of doing so. Throughout the campaign, the quality of football at Old Trafford has ranged from average to abysmal and consequentially, dominant results have been few and far between.
Even Louis van Gaal has admitted a top four finish is incredibly unlikely, telling reporters after a 2-1 defeat to Sunderland last month; “I have told the players the top four will be very difficult now. You cannot close your eyes to that. It’s still possible but very difficult. We needed the points so much, everybody is very sad.”
But the Premier League season is a 38-game affair and the Carrington outfit have eleven left to improve their fortunes. So with the gap closing and the title race hotting up, United still have a chance to muscle their way into the top four before the end of May.
Here are FIVE reasons we at Football Fancast are tipping them to do so.
The Europa League is often seen as a unnecessary burden on Premier League clubs who already endure rather chaotic scheduling during the second half of the season, but for Manchester United this term it’s very much a blessing in disguise.
Indeed, the recent rule change means Manchester United can qualify for the Champions League through Europe’s second tournament, as well as via the more traditional route of finishing in the Premier League’s top four.
Easier said than done, especially considering the Red Devils will face bitter rivals Liverpool in the Round of 16 next Thursday. Currently in the bottom half and out of the FA Cup, the Reds are even more desperate than United progress in the Europa League.
But of all the Premier League clubs involved this season, namely United, Liverpool and Spurs, the Old Trafford outfit have the squad depth to effectively compete on both fronts. Liverpool’s roster just doesn’t have the same numbers and the Lilywhites will likely find themselves prioritising the Premier League title race.
United won’t need to make such sacrifices whilst keeping both methods of qualifying alive and few managers throughout world football boast Louis van Gaal’s experience in manoeuvring past tricky European double-leggers.
With Louis van Gaal already deemed a lame duck manager and many resultantly writing off Man United’s chances of finishing in the top four, for the first time this season there isn’t actually that much pressure on the Old Trafford outfit.
No doubt, underwhelming performances will invite scrutiny, particularly in regards to LVG. But there’s been so much already this season you get the feeling the worst is over and United are now in a position where their fortunes depend on others making mistakes.
Meanwhile, Arsenal find themselves amid a media circus following the 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford last weekend, just days after losing 2-0 to Barcelona, with Arsene Wenger’s future at the Emirates the subject of much tabloid talk once again.
Likewise, Manchester City are under the spotlight, having failed to fulfil their potential as the most complete and talented squad in the division, Leicester City have never felt pressure like this throughout their entire history and all eyes are suddenly on Tottenham Hotspur – the new bookies’ favourite.
That doesn’t necessarily mean all of the sides above them in the table are about to wilt, although some will, but it does allow a smokescreen for Manchester United to quietly claw their way back into the top four.
Following on from my last point, Manchester United have a fantastic chance to further heap the pressure on those above them in the table amid a series of season-defining fixtures.
Indeed, the Red Devils still have to face Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City before the end of May and if they beat all three, the space between themselves and the top four will be marginal – if there is one at all.
Likewise, good United results in those games will further close the gap in the title race, which will only further pressurise those involved in it and potentially propel one or two towards implosion.
Once again, easier said than done. But Louis van Gaal does boast a decent record in heavyweight clashes.
Since the start of last season, he’s beaten Liverpool four times in four attempts, claimed seven of a possible twelve points off Arsenal, bagged two wins and a draw against Tottenham Hotspur and created a stalemate with City, with the Manchester clubs recording one win, one draw and one defeat apiece.
Likewise, the Dutchman managed to hold Leicester City to a draw in November.
Aside from those aforementioned six-pointers, Manchester United’s run-in is a relatively simple one provided Louis van Gaal can get the side playing to their best levels.
No doubt, there are some potential banana-skins along the way, with penultimate and ultimate opponents Norwich City and Bournemouth respectively standing out amid their bids for Premier League survival.
But the likes of Crystal Palace, Everton, West Brom and Watford will have little to play for upon facing United, whilst Aston Villa could already be relegated by the time their April visit to Old Trafford comes around.
Those five fixtures give United a realistic chance of bagging all 15 points, meaning they’d have to claim a further eleven from their other six games to meet last season’s Champions League qualifying total of 70.
By no means impossible and amid such a close-knit season where no side has dominated, the top four threshold will probably be around five points less this term.
It’s safe to say Manchester United have suffered their fair share of injury problems this season. In fact, their injury list has been the largest of any Premier League club for the vast majority of the campaign and currently, a whopping 14 players are sidelined.
But United’s fortunes could be about to change in that regard at the best possible time of the season. Indeed, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, Anthony Martial, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Matteo Darmian, Phil Jones, Marouane Fellaini, Phil Jones, Antonio Valencia and Bastian Schweinsteiger are all set to return to action within the next fortnight, just in time for the Manchester derby.
Of course, a number of the aforementioned have struggled for form this season and in some cases, they could spend a good few weeks getting back up to speed following lengthy layoffs.
But nonetheless, United’s squad will be strengthened just when they need it most and Louis van gaal will have a much larger variety of options at his disposal. Combine that with likes of Jesse Lingard, Memphis Depay and Marcus Rashford, who have thoroughly impressed in recent weeks, and United should be able to put a decent starting Xi together for the campaign’s run-in.