No matter the propaganda, failure to qualify for the Champions League would mean this campaign has been a disaster for Manchester United; they have eight games to secure a spot and save their season.
After 30 games of the last campaign United were on 55 points, and have just 46 heading into their game against fellow European hopefuls Sheffield United on Wednesday. Their current form is excellent, but any reasons to be cheerful – and there are plenty right now – will be overshadowed by feelings of regret, should they fail to get over the line from here.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are unbeaten in their last 12 games in all competitions, winning eight, including the impressive 2-0 victories over Chelsea and Manchester City in the Premier League. The arrival of Bruno Fernandes towards the start of that run gave the side a much-needed dose of creativity, and in just a 30-minute cameo against Spurs, Paul Pogba proved he can be the booster to that injection.
The defence, too, has been close to impeccable in this 12-game period, conceding just three times. Harry Maguire does occasionally fail to get his big frame moving, and can be made to look a bit of a lummox as he was on Friday night, but he’s been a very good signing. To arrive at a club as huge as Manchester United and take over the captaincy so seamlessly is no mean feat.
And let’s not forget they’ve had to go on this run without the aid of their top marksman. Marcus Rashford was on fire before a back injury ruled him out, scoring 14 goals in 22 Premier League games up to that point.
But such form shouldn’t have been necessary. And in spite of that run, Sheffield United will overtake United if they win at Old Trafford. And I mean no disrespect – but it’s Sheffield United. Solskjaer has massively underachieved in his first full season – as a comparison with pre-season expectations shows – and no amount of half-volleyed Pogba passes or Fernandes penalties will change that – if they don’t make it into the Champions League.
Winning the Europa League remains a viable option for qualification, and whether a fourth of fifth-placed finish in the league will be enough to get them there remains to be seen. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) will announce its decision on Manchester City’s appeal against their European ban in the first half of July, but United must assume it’s going to be overturned and target fourth. And although Chelsea sit five points clear as things stand, the Blues have by far the more difficult run-in on paper, with Leicester, Liverpool and Wolves still to play after they host City on Thursday. After Sheffield United, Solskjaer’s side have just Leicester left to play in the top eight.
And should City – rightly or wrongly – be allowed to compete in the Champions League next season, the harangues of injustice that will inevitably be voiced by United should they finish fifth, will fall on deaf ears; they will only have themselves to blame. Chelsea lost their best player, brought in an inexperienced new manager and had a transfer ban to contend with this season, while Leicester are still somehow eight points clear of them despite winning just two Premier League games since New Year’s Day. This was not a difficult year to be the fourth, or even third-best team in this division.
But just as this run of results will count for very little should they fail to qualify, the season’s struggles won’t matter if they do – such is the fickleness of football.
Then, instead of inevitable questions about Solskjaer’s future at the club, the talk will be about what Jadon Sancho will do on his first season for Manchester United. The 20-year-old is – at the moment – dragging his feet over a proposed move, probably wondering whether he will be stood on the Old Trafford pitch on a Wednesday listening to the Champions League theme, or sat on the bench watching Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard struggle against the Lithuanian champions the day after.
As it always will do, playing Champions League football carries weight, with the players you already have and those you are trying to sign. Weight that the brand of Manchester United can only do without for so long.
Will Ford is on Twitter