Three Is Becoming The Magic Number

You might say that Man United have sod all chance of winning the Champions League - but we have been here before and Tottenham were the victims. It's a real threat...

Last Updated: 20/03/14 at 15:23 Post Comment

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"I suppose we will be underdogs," David Moyes said, perhaps to the irritation even in victory of those fans who want their manager to radiate arrogance. "But I genuinely believe this club is capable of winning it." Again, a more timid exposition than you would have expected from Sir Alex Ferguson after reaching the last eight of the Champions League.

Still, Manchester United are there, and it may have significant repercussions for the Premier League title race, too.

We will not know until Friday's draw exactly who United will face in the quarter-finals, but there are some moderately enticing possibilities - on form, Borussia Dortmund could be the hand-picked choice. Whoever it is, though, United will have a chance of beating them. And should they succeed then their semi-final opponents will take nothing for granted, and then...

A couple of years ago I wasted a little bit too much of a busy working day stressing the importance to a writer of mentioning that were Chelsea to win the Champions League then fourth place would not be good enough for Tottenham. It wasn't going to happen, I was told, on the grounds that whatever Roberto Di Matteo's side could do to Benfica, Barcelona would be an insuperable obstacle.

UEFA changed the draw format last year, meaning the semi-finalists will have to troop back to Nyon to find out their opponents. But the effect of Olympiakos's failure to finish is to keep alive a possibility that should already have been kept in mind in top-four calculations. The size of the footnote has just increased; should United receive a favourable draw then it will be unignorable, not least because of what Chelsea did to Spurs in 2012.

Back then, it was really only Harry Redknapp's team and Arsenal who had a particular concern about finishing fourth: Manchester United and Manchester City finished streets ahead. This time, though, we have a four-way race: City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal are between 6-4 and 14-1 to win the championship according to the bookies.

Ladbrokes, Stan James and Betfair offer another market of interest: odds of finishing in the top three. Only at Betfair are Arsenal, the outsiders, worse than evens because of the bookies' margins, and Chelsea and City are 1-8 shots not to make it. With Arsenal travelling to Stamford Bridge on Saturday and the Manchester derby at Old Trafford next Tuesday, followed by Arsenal v City, those odds should shift substantially on the basis of events in games where points must be dropped by contenders.

These odds are quoted not to encourage gambling but just to point out that we are not talking about outlandish possibilities here and that the Premier League table could look substantially different by the time United's quarter-final kicks off.

On F365 today, 'Mike Marsh plays down title talk' is the headline on a piece in which Liverpool's first-team coach says: "Anything more than a top-four finish would be a bonus." Keeping people calm may seem important to Brendan Rodgers and his team but a looming possibility that United could do to Liverpool what Chelsea did to Spurs will raise the anxiety levels even more than the Reds still having a genuine chance of winning the title at the end of next month. If the top four close up - say if Arsenal beat Chelsea then City - then they could all be playing with realistic hopes of being champions, as a realistic fear of being gazumped by United builds.

Until this season Moyes had never managed in the Champions League proper, but came desperately close, denied extra time in a play-off against Villarreal by a Pierluigi Collina refereeing error in his final match in charge. That was in 2005, when the Premier League uniquely had five clubs in with a shout after Liverpool were parachuted in as holders after the Premier League had made it clear even before Istanbul that they would submit the top four.

UEFA's decision after that astonishing final caused great chagrin on Blue Merseyside; the governing body surely acted sensibly but sense has nothing to do with football rivalry. Michel Platini and co made plain it was a 'never again' decision, enshrining the ejection of the fourth-placed team in such circumstances in their rules.

United are a 20-1 shot to win their fourth European Cup. Nine years on, Istanbul might just have a sting in the tail for Rafa Benitez's most recent successor.

Philip Cornwall

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