Manchester United are keeping the race for Champions League qualification alive, but it is everybody else’s hopes that they are sustaining with their inability to seal the deal.
Erik ten Hag’s team should have slammed the door shut on the top four at Tottenham Hotspur, but by blowing a two-goal lead and holding on for a 2-2 draw, they have given us a Super Sunday double-header this weekend that could ignite a four-way sprint to the finish line for fourth spot.
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Or they could simply get the job and make a top four spot their own. Leading by two goals at halftime against a Spurs side that were trounced 6-1 at Newcastle on Sunday and playing under their second interim-manager — Ryan Mason — since Antonio Conte’s dismissal last month, United had the opportunity to win convincingly and beat a top ten side away from home for the first time since defeating Fulham in November.
But they blew it as a combination of missed chances and goals by Pedro Porro and Son Heung-Min enabled Spurs to salvage a draw and go into Sunday’s encounter with seventh-place Liverpool at Anfield knowing that the top four is still within their reach.
“When you are 2-0 up, you are of course disappointed when you draw,” Ten Hag said. “After going to 2-1, we missed too many chances to take it to 3-1. “We need to manage the game, keep the ball. We gave so many easy balls away. It was so easy for them (Spurs).”
Spurs climbed to fifth, six points behind United having played two more games, but with United facing sixth-placed Aston Villa (also six points adrift of fourth) at Old Trafford on Sunday, the race for fourth could look a whole lot different by close of play. And that reality is largely down to United’s failure to pull up the drawbridge.
They sit eighth in the Premier League form table over the last eight games after winning four, losing two and draw two of those fixtures. Villa, who have found real form under Unai Emery in recent weeks, have stormed into contention by winning six and drawing two of their last eight games. If the season had started eight games ago, Villa would be third. Tottenham’s form has dropped off a cliff with two wins and three defeats their last eight, but United haven’t quite been able to shake them off. This game was the big opportunity to do that, but United failed to take it.
And Liverpool’s recent uptick of form, which has seen them win three games on the bounce, has given Jurgen Klopp’s side an outside chance of sneaking into the top four, although they are seven points behind United having played one game more. There are two obvious reasons why United are still labouring towards clinching a top four spot — a lack of goals and a defence that can’t keep it tight at the back — and they both reared their head against Spurs. In the top seven, only Villa (46) have score fewer goals than United’s 48. They are at least ten goals behind the rest, with Arsenal netting 78 and Manchester City already registering 82.
Defensively, United have the leakiest defence in the top four having conceded 39, but their goals against column is more favourable when measured against Spurs (53), Villa (41) and Liverpool (39).
United’s hunt for a proven goalscorer during the summer transfer window has already been well signposted, with Harry Kane and Napoli’s Victor Osimhen the leading targets.
ESPN reported last month that United’s concerns over dealing with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy, who is notoriously difficult to negotiate with when offloading one of players, could force them to abandon their interest in Kane, but the United supporters made their feelings clear during the first-half of this game by singing, ‘Harry Kane, we’ll see you in June.’
Optimistic, perhaps, especially as Levy is unlikely to even think about a deal until the final hours of deadine day on Aug 31, but with Kane in their line-up, United would be a completely different proposition. The chances they missed against Spurs would likely have been taken by Kane and his presence in Ten Hag’s team alongside Marcus Rashford, who put United 2-0 up following Jadon Sancho’s opener, would arguably make them City’s closest challengers next season. But it is because United don’t have a Kane in their line-up that they are still uncertain of their Champions League qualification ambitions.
They should clinch fourth spot thanks to the lead they have already built up, but until they get the job done, the question marks will remain. If United win on Sunday, they can start to breathe a little easier. But they should already be safely over the line, so nothing can be taken for granted.
“We need energy,” Ten Hag said. “We have to be ready for Sunday.”
If United aren’t ready, and Villa take advantage, the final month of the season will become far more nervous that it needed to be.