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Manchester United's Champions League Charge Is Admirable And Ballsy

Photo credit: Laurence Griffiths/Getty

This Premier League season had so much promise. A veritable murderers’ row of superstar managers—Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho and Antonio Conte joining a league that already had Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino and oh yeah I guess Arsène Wenger still counts—overseeing a handful of huge, rich, heavily reinforced teams, creating what should’ve been the mother of all title and top four races. And to be clear, it has been a good season. But coming into the home stretch of the campaign, the time when we would’ve hoped all these great squads would be slugging it out to either win the title or at least snatch one of the top four spots, the only team seemingly doing everything they can to claw their way into the Champions League next season is the one that intentionally set themselves up to lose this weekend.

So yeah, Arsenal did beat Manchester United in this weekend’s biggest matchup, but somehow it didn’t really matter all that much. Kudos to Wenger for finally besting Mourinho in a game that almost meant something, though. And it’s always good to see Troopz back on his bullshit:

But still. This result shouldn’t have too much of an impact on which teams from England will qualify for the Champions League next season, except insofar as United helped their chances in the Europa League by playing a lineup full of backups against Arsenal.


This is where things stand at the top of the EPL table right now:

The title is done. And Chelsea and Tottenham have already locked down half of the top four. That just leaves Liverpool, Manchester City, United, and Arsenal for what on paper looks like it would be a war for the final two spots. But not only is a tantalizing battle not likely to break out, it doesn’t even seem like any of the would-be combatants are trying that hard to make it happen.

Behind the two already guaranteed a spot, City have the next best odds to cement their Champions League future. They have been great all year, have an easy schedule, and bar a humiliating collapse, should skate into either third or fourth. Draws in two of their last three matches haven’t helped their cause too much, but with the teams left on their schedule, David Silva’s return to health, and the way they stomped out Crystal Palace this weekend, it’s hard to see City faltering.


After that come Liverpool. While they’ve tried their best to shoot their own feet off by hemorrhaging points against bad-to-mediocre teams all season, and again failed to earn what would’ve been a crucial win against Southampton, they still only have two eminently winnable matches against West Ham and Middlesbrough to wrap up their season. Their main problem all year against the smaller teams they’ve struggled against has been their inability to break down deep defenses, in large part because Georginio Wijnaldum has zero interest in doing regular midfielder stuff like showing for the ball and passing it around. With just two games remaining, and with their one deep-block-cracking player Adam Lallana returning to fitness recently, the Reds should be able to get the points they need to ensure UCL play. Two wins and they’re in.

Then we come to Arsenal. Yes, they won this weekend, and by doing so leapfrogged United as fifth-favorites for the top four, but their chances are still long. The Gunners likely will have to win all four of their remaining matches, against pretty tough competition (Southampton, Stoke, Sunderland, and Everton). If they can win their final four games—and they’ve only gone on a winning streak of at least four matches in the league one other time all season—they still need help from one or both of City and Liverpool. Probably not happening.


Then we get to United, the most interesting case. With the loss to Arsenal, their odds of finishing in the top four are miniscule. They know this, too, which is why they rotated the starting lineup so heavily this weekend following their Europa League semifinal against Celta Vigo. Mourinho had already all but thrown in the towel in league play a couple weeks ago; the lineup he trotted out against Arsenal made his intentions of forgoing a top four finish in hopes to maximize the Red Devils’ Europa League trophy aspirations incontrovertible. It’s less “putting their eggs all in one basket” and more “refusing to juggle a carton’s worth of eggs with one hand so that there still might be enough unbroken ones to make an omelette with when they really need to.”

Seeing how United approached the Arsenal match, we’ll probably see them put out similar lineups against Tottenham this weekend and Crystal Palace on the final matchday of the season in order to give the Europa League starters a breather. It’s a ballsy strategy, to so unabashedly sandbag league matches in favor of the inglorious Europa League ones, but it’s a smart one. United are doing everything in their power to make sure they’re competing in the Champions League next season. Too bad we can’t say the same for the rest of their top four rivals. Rather than charging into the UCL places in the table, it’s looking more and more likely that whichever two teams do wind up in third and fourth will have stumbled into those spots.

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