When Chris Smalling netted the fourth in the humiliation of local rivals Manchester City at Old Trafford, rainbows were flying all over the ground and top four rat race was forgotten and few infact started talking about an unlikely late title push. Fast forward two weeks and Manchester United have lost the automatic qualification spot and are just about hanging themselves in the last of the four positions for the Champions League.
The two back-to-back defeats against Chelsea and Everton may not have caused any setback in the teams aim for European qualification, as United are still seven points ahead of fifth placed Liverpool. But, before United face West Bromwich Albion in the weekend, Liverpool play twice, as a result the Merseyside Reds may reduce the deficit to just one point. So Red Devils know that when they walk to Old Trafford on Saturday, the pressure will be enormous for them to get the result.
Even if United as expected gets the victory this weekend, they still have to travel to a very tricky Crystal Palace and play Arsenal the following week at Old Trafford and finish the season at a relegation threatened Hull City. None of the last three fixtures are easy for United. Since Crystal Palace will neither be relegated nor will be able to push for any European places, the match against United will mean little for them, so with United needing more out of the game, they can very well get the three points in it.
The same can be said for Arsenal too. The Gunners will neither win the title nor will finish out of the European positions, so the game against Manchester United may not mean much for them either. Hence, United can once again hope to get all three points from the game. Having said that the same scenario was evident when United traveled to Goodison Park last weekend. With Everton in a similar position to Crystal Palace, with nothing much to play for, they still looked the hungrier side than the Reds. Sometimes the lack of pressure or expectation from a match, can help a team perform freely to their abilities and Everton benefited from it really well against United.
Also the last fixture against Hull City too can become a very tricky one if Hull are still in the relegation scrap at that point. If the safety of Steve Bruce’s side is guaranteed before the last day, then United can expect an easy ride. But, if that is not the case, then that may very well become the last place Reds want to go on the final day of the season. However, United does not need to win them all, as they just need two wins and a draw to get to that magic mark of 72 points, which normally in the premier league era guarantees top four places.
Moreover, the only scenario when that may not be enough will be if Liverpool wins all their remaining five fixtures, which will take them to 73 points. However, with Liverpool still having to travel to Chelsea and face tricky games against relegation stragglers Hull City and Queens Park Rangers, it is unlikely Rodgers men will win all their remaining games. So two wins and a draw may be enough for the Reds, or to make it safe they may have to win three from the last four.
Couple of weeks ago, when United were on an unbelievable six game winning run, everyone would have placed bets in favour of United winning three of their last four games. However after the last two defeats, that does not look all the more straight forward for the Manchester Reds. So Van Gaal knows that nothing in this league can be taken for granted. Until and unless United get the necessary points tally, he will keep on reminding the players in his own way about the task in hand. And, he very well knows that if United can avoid the complacency they had at Goodison and played like they did at the beginning of the month, then his side can walk past any opponent into the top four or three positions. However, for that to happen, United have to get their heads back in the game.
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