Optimism Fading from United as they Approach Decisive Week
When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took charge of Manchester United in December, there was, if not scepticism over his temporary appointment, acknowledgement of the difficult task that lay ahead. Jose Mourinho had been sacked after a defeat at Anfield, with United very much looking in from the outside in the top four race, having to jostle with Everton for sixth place. Champions League qualification for next season was all but gone, and the rest of this season was all about consolidation and preventing catastrophe.
But the Norwegian began with a 5-1 win at Cardiff, which became the first of six straight league victories, and eight in all competitions. ‘Ole’s at the wheel’ became the message, and the wheel was in turbo mode, as that form transformed to 12 wins in 14, including a comeback victory in the Champions League last 16 second leg in Paris. Ole had taken a job, which seemed a like win-win situation, and wins were pouring out of everywhere. They were very much back in the top-four discussion. ‘Give him the job’ became the call.
That call was answered, with United giving their former striker a permanent three-year contract during the previous international break. But that meant it stopped being a win-win situation, United not waiting till the end of the season – while setting the tone for a more settled summer – seemed rushed; what if they crash out of the Champions League and don’t make the top four?
And at the moment, it looks to be heading that way. United were dumped out of Europe on Tuesday, a 3-0 shellacking that completed a 4-0 loss on aggregate. That defeat is the fifth for United in the seven games since Paris, with the other two matches being the luckiest of victories. The wheel isn’t quite as steady as it seemed initially, with the Red Devils in sixth place in the league.
That’s not to say Solskjaer’s appointment is wrong, but it does seem, with the aid of hindsight, now seem ill-time. A poor run of form in which the players look far from it, with the manager already getting a three-year deal. Out of Europe’s elite competition this season, and in danger of not making it there next year.
With United no longer being in the Champions League – and out of the FA Cup as well – their sole focus is now on making the top four. And this weekend marks the beginning of what looks like a defining seven-day period, with a trip to Everton on Sunday to be followed by home games against Manchester City (on Wednesday) and Chelsea (the following weekend). This seems like the kind of period that will define their top four chances, not least the game against fellow Champions League Chelsea, especially with only two league games left after that.
A season that started in a gloomy fashion, and found its bounce midway, now looks like petering out in an unexciting manner. The wheel needs to get back to speed again.
- In early December, Brighton were in the top half, closer to the top six than they were the drop zone, and consolidation was a real possibility. But since then, the Seagulls have won three out of 19 league games, and Tuesday’s defeat at home to Cardiff has them right in the thick of the relegation battle, only two points above the drop zone. Chris Hughton’s side have what seems like a must-win game at home to Wolves, if not to quell all talk of relegation, but to ease the sense of panic growing in the side.
- After their insane encounter in the Champions League on Wednesday, Manchester City and Spurs meet at the Etihad again, for the final episode of their trilogy. City have a title challenge, while Spurs have a top-four spot to hold on to. But after their exertions in midweek, this has the look of a potentially underwhelming game (hopeful this jinxes that).
- A different result at the AMEX on Tuesday, and Cardiff would have just about been done. But three invaluable points has them back in the shout for survival, two points away from safety. But Neil Warnock’s Bluebirds task is at home to league leaders, who, however they do it, show no sign of letting up in the title race.
Manchester City v Tottenham
Huddersfield v Watford
Everton v Manchester United
Newcastle v Southampton
Bournemouth v Fulham
West Ham v Leicester
Arsenal v Crystal Palace
Wolves v Brighton
Chelsea v Burnley
Cardiff v Liverpool
Kunle Ajao57 Posts
Kunle Ajao is a football writer and columnist for spotkick. Having made a toss of himself trying to actually play the game, he knew better and got a pen instead of boots. Spends a bit of his time with the game, and thinks he's a bit like Sid Lowe. He's not