At the start of the season there was a broad consensus on the composition of the Premier League’s last top four and a group of overwhelming favorites for next season’s Champions League qualification. The order depended on who you asked, but almost everyone agreed that Chelsea and Manchester United would join Manchester City and Liverpool.
Two of those four clubs have spent the past week competing in the semi-finals of this year’s Champions League, having already secured their place next season. For City, winning the competition would be the crowning moment of the Abu Dhabi era. It could yet complete an unprecedented quadruple for Liverpool. It’s the end of April and this season could still be historic for both clubs.
Your two rivals, on the other hand, can hardly wait for the end of the season. Chelsea and United play each other at Old Trafford tonight in a game that will have little effect on their respective seasons, a game postponed by the schedule to clash with the Europa League. Many viewers might conclude that West Ham’s first European semi-final in 46 years is an overall more enticing prospect than this clash between two jaded giants.
Chelsea have at least one more FA Cup final to look forward to and will eventually secure a top four finish. It’s in some ways the ongoing title challenge that many have been expecting, but very little has gone as expected at Stamford Bridge in recent months. The takeover saga is reaching its defining days. Most importantly, whatever the outcome, the club’s future is secured.
United haven’t suffered an existential crisis in the same way, but that’s about the only thing that hasn’t gone wrong at Old Trafford in the last nine months. This season could be called unforgettable if it weren’t arguably the most dramatic and traumatic of the post-Ferguson era. The appointment of Erik ten Hag can only offer delayed gratification at a club that needs – and often craves – instant optimism.
The problems keep piling up. There is now an injury crisis following Paul Scholes’ public rants about riots in the dressing room and hints from Scott McTominay after the weekend’s defeat by Arsenal. Ralf Rangnick revealed at his pre-match press conference yesterday that he will only have 14 first-team players available on Thursday night.
Harry Maguire has sustained a knee injury. Jadon Sancho has tonsillitis. Fred remains sidelined, as does Edinson Cavani, Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is also doubtful and Rangnick must weigh up whether now is the time to put his faith in academy products like Hannibal Mejbri, who caught the eye with this combative cameo at the Anfield humiliation. That can be the most sensible thing to do when you have so little left to play for.
United’s injury record remains worrying, however, and it’s an issue Rangnick has repeatedly raised in recent weeks after being denied players at a critical part of the season. He has suggested a thorough internal review to get to the bottom of the problem but was sure to deflect any blame from those in United’s medical department. “There’s nothing that needs to be checked,” he stressed, “but if we’re going to drop seven outfield players tomorrow, obviously that’s not a good thing at this part of the season.”
The scrutiny is instead aimed at Rangnick himself. This is far from a simple club but their transition period has not had the desired effect. “I think I tried everything I could, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we did everything right,” he admitted to Carrington when asked if the spell had tarnished his reputation. “Everyone has to ask themselves, the staff, the players and me what we could have done better in the past. That’s part of our job. To do this, everyone has to be self-critical enough.”
Players and managers alike, no one at Old Trafford can escape that criticism, even if United win all four remaining league games. It says everything about how poorly the season has gone that a perfect record by the end of next month could be seen by some as less of a blessing and more of a curse. With a Champions League spot gone, which it certainly is, a Europa League spot is little consolation and a Conference League spot even less.
Rangnick has used Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool as a point of reference on several occasions when discussing United’s rebuilding and the absence of European football in his first full season in charge has been noted. With a free midweek, Liverpool finished fourth this year. Arsenal are likely to benefit in the same way this season, while even Louis van Gaal’s United returned to the top four after a year without Europe. Eighth place would be the worst in 32 years and, perversely, the best thing that could happen to Ten Hag.
“That could be an advantage, but that doesn’t mean that we will give up one of the remaining four games,” said Rangnick. “For us it is clear and our obligation. That’s our job, my job, the players’ job, that we try to get the best possible results.” It’s a matter of professional pride, after all. And while their rivals all have opportunities to add to their trophy cabinets in the coming weeks, that’s all United have to play for.