In the swirl of continued happiness surrounding Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s custodianship of Manchester United, it’s easy to forget what United’s aims are for this season. Jose Mourinho won trophies in his first year in Manchester and finished second last season before the car crash at the start of this term.
As compliments flew round for the way United’s injury-hit side earned a draw at home to Liverpool on Sunday, United slipped out of the top four after Arsenal beat Southampton. If Chelsea win their game in hand, United will be back in sixth, where they were when Solskjaer took control.
The Norwegian has done exceptionally well to even be in contention for fourth, but one reason Mourinho lost his job was because the club felt he had given up on a top-four finish.
Top four is vital to United’s business plan. Players’ contracts are heavily incentivised toward Champions League football, while commercial contracts contain clauses for Europe’s top competition. There are extra TV revenues, matchday revenues too. United can justify top dollar for executive facilities against top-flight European opposition at home, but they are hard-pushed to do that in the Europa League. The three most expensive black market standard tickets for United games this season have been against Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League — and Liverpool on Sunday, when pairs of £40 tickets went for £600.
United’s gamble in 2017 on winning the Europa League to get back in the Champions League paid off. There was no such option this season; that is one reason United acted sooner than expected and sacked Mourinho in December. They wanted to recover the season while there was still time, and one of the first things that Solskjaer said was that he intended to chase down that fourth spot. He has done that.
Finishing fourth to play in the Champions League won’t spark celebrations of the type you’ll see should United win the FA Cup in May, but it means more to the bottom line. Champions League football also is attractive to new recruits — considering the best players want to play in the best competitions — and to the players already at the club. United, one of the three biggest clubs in the world, have not gone beyond the last eight since 2011.
United have 11 league games left for a battle for fourth spot, for even third-placed Tottenham are eight points ahead. Six of those games are at home against Southampton, Watford, West Ham, Manchester City, Chelsea and Cardiff. Five are away, starting with Crystal Palace on Wednesday. That Selhurst Park fixture, the most awkward ground to get to for United fans, has been midweek for the past three seasons.
There are matches farther away at Arsenal, Wolves, Everton and Huddersfield. The games against Arsenal and Chelsea, two teams who United have beaten away from home under the Norwegian, are key.
United go into the run of games with their most serious injuries list of the season. Solskjaer, who’ll update on those injuries on Tuesday, joked that Michael Carrick will have to consider putting his boots back on after the stable and trusted midfield three of Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba was cut to just Pogba. Juan Mata, Herrera and Jesse Lingard all limped off in a freak first half against Liverpool.
Carrick would probably get a game ahead of Fred, a £50 million footballer, United’s fourth-most-expensive signing and the seventh-most-expensive Brazilian in history, who didn’t get off the bench. If his signing raised eyebrows among players he had played with at the time, it looks positively bizarre now.
With so many injuries, Solskjaer hinted that younger players would get a chance against Palace. Scott McTominay does little to excite fans, but he is a dependable youth product who played well in the sun against Liverpool. The talented Andreas Pereira, who had dreadful matches against Brighton and Burnley, did likewise.
The heavily depleted team put in a dogged performance against the league leaders and showed a courage and spirit that was absent when they last met in December, but these players need to take their chances when they get them. Palace, who beat Leicester 4-1 away on Saturday, are in form too. Like United, they’re also in the FA Cup sixth round. They held United to a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in November, one of the low points of the Mourinho era, but they’ll be vengeful at home after leading the equivalent fixture 2-0 last season at half-time but losing 3-2 after Matic’s last-minute winner.
United fans have to do their bit. They were excellent in London last week at Chelsea, which was to be expected, given the strength of the away support; but they also were superb at home to Liverpool on Sunday, roaring their support because they knew it was needed. Liverpool at home also saw the best atmosphere last season. It’s a game between the two biggest teams in England, and United fans would delight in Liverpool not winning a first league title since 1990.
It wasn’t pretty, but United stopped the best Liverpool teams in years from creating — not that Liverpool have looked like they’ve got a title win in them judging by their performances in 2019. David De Gea, who kept his 100th clean sheet in the Premier League, was barely troubled by their ineffective front three. Luke Shaw, one of United’s best players, had Mohamed Salah under control at all times. Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof again put in solid shifts in central defence.
And what was Jurgen Klopp on about sounding unnerved because United lost three key players before the break? His side should have exploited that as ruthlessly as Real Madrid did when United had Nani sent off in 2013. That’s what winners do.
United fans must do their bit at home if they’re to be worthy of more of the compliments lavished on them by the players after Sunday. Those fans were disappointing at home to PSG.
Liverpool were dispirited on Sunday, but as their 3,000 travelling fans sang after the match, they’re top of the league. They’re also 14 points clear of United and better placed in the Champions League.
Of course, United could reach the Champions League next season by winning it this season, first by coming back from a 2-0 deficit against PSG next Wednesday in Paris. United will give it their best shot, but there’s more chance of the Eiffel Tower walking to Manchester, so perhaps it’s better to focus on domestic matters, league and cup, starting with Wednesday.