Manchester United head into Sunday’s clash against Huddersfield with their Champions League hopes hanging by a thread, but also somehow very much alive.
All four protagonists in the race for the top four – United, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea – have stuttered down the Premier League home straight. And with United facing two relegated sides in their final two fixtures – the Terriers and Cardiff, who were sent down on Saturday following defeat to Crystal Palace – on paper, at least, they must realise they have a chance.
But they simply have to start finding form in order to get out of their funk, and that issue is how we kick off our talking points.
CHERRIES PICK UP WIN, UNITED PICK HEADS UP
They’ve been saying for weeks that no one wants the last two spots for the Champions League as top-four candidates continue to falter and surprise results keep occurring.
After David de Gea gifted Chelsea an equaliser and both they plus United meandered to a dull 1-1 draw at Old Trafford last week, the Red Devils’ hopes of elite European football next term were rendered bleak.
But Spurs’ slip at Bournemouth on Saturday means United’s faint hopes are somehow still flickering – and now they have to try and fan those flames by hammering Huddersfield to ramp up the heat on the rest of their rivals.
Nothing but a commanding victory will do for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side at the John Smith’s Stadium on Sunday. United are in desperate need of not only a victory but a vibrant performance after a month of poor, lifeless displays.
Whereas with eight games to go Arsenal appeared in the driving seat for the top four with a kind set of fixtures, Unai Emery’s men have faltered, with their struggles on the road continuing in defeats at Wolves and Leicester, as well as a home loss to Crystal Palace.
Stuttering Spurs have suffered four defeats in their last seven games – their nine men losing 1-0 to the Cherries meant they failed to secure Champions League qualification. They also end the season with a tough test against Everton at home.
Chelsea, meanwhile, are also out of sorts, having won just three of their last seven, and they are winless in three games.
United simply must shake off the rust.
DE GEA HANDED A REPRIEVE
Many critics predicted and many United fans had called for David de Gea to be taken out of the firing line following his latest blunder against Chelsea last week.
De Gea’s gaffe, allowing Antonio Rudiger’s long-range strike to escape his grasp which was then seized upon by Marcos Alonso, was the latest in a season of high-profile mistakes the United custodian has made, following errors at the World Cup with Spain.
But Solskjaer resisted calls for a change between the sticks – but the decision was seemingly taken out of his hands when No2 keeper Sergio Romero was ruled out of the Huddersfield trip through injury.
“Of course we trust him, he’s been fantastic this season,” Solskjaer said of De Gea in his pre-match press conference on Friday.
“Towards the end now he’s been in the headlines maybe for the wrong reasons, but, as I’ve said so many times, he has to deal with that.”
Speculation about his future, plus a wrangle over a purported new contract, surely aren’t helping the Spaniard’s fragile mindset, and the 28-year-old stopper needs a decent performance in Yorkshire just as much as his team do.
United’s player of the year for four of the last five seasons had been the best keeper in the world for a number of years prior to this season but has slipped behind Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak over the previous 10 months.
He’s in need of a summer break so that his future can finally be sorted out and so he can receive a vital break, both physically and mentally. But, right now, he just needs to switch on and perform at his highest for another 180 minutes.
CAN FRAUD SANCHEZ FIND ANY FORM?
Alexis Sanchez was one of the Premier League’s deadliest finishers and silkiest forwards when he swapped the Emirates Stadium for Old Trafford a little over a year ago.
Sure, his final six months at Arsenal was circumspect. He had definitely lost a step in terms of pace and the miles travelled constantly for Chile, as well as club exertions, looked like they were beginning to take a toll on a set of then 29-year-old legs which have seen more action than most during their career.
But United fans were still salivating at the prospect of a genuine world class player arriving. It seemed a no-brainer of a deal.
A swap for confidence-sapped Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who never lived up to his exalted superstar status from his time in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund. And while the Armenian has hardly pulled up any trees in north London, Gunners fans will still rightly feel they’ve enjoyed the better side of the deal.
Even in that porous final half season at the Emirates, Sanchez still scored a respectable eight goals in 22 appearances in all competitions. He netted three times in 18 games in alternate United red. This season his woeful return of two in 26 has him headed for the exit door this summer.
Since finding the net with a stylish opener against his former side as United dumped Arsenal out of the FA Cup in January, Sanchez has failed to register a single goal or assist in his ensuing 12 outings.
He hasn’t started a game in two months – the 3-2 win over Southampton at the start of March – but looks likely to be in the first XI as United desperately go in search of three points on Sunday.
It is a disastrous return for any top player, let alone one earning £400,000 a week. He has become a fraud.
They’ll take a hit if they get rid of the South American this summer, but it’s a price United must pay as Solskjaer gets set to stamp his mark on the club in the off-season.
He’s living on borrowed time but can Sanchez belatedly stamp his own class on Old Trafford in the final two games of the season and show everyone he’s far from finished?
United are playing catch-up in the race for a top-four finish following four defeats in seven Premier League games.
Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer’s sixth-placed side sit three points adrift of Chelsea and one behind Arsenal with just two fixtures remaining and appear destined for the Europa League next season.
But, going into Sunday’s game at relegated Huddersfield, midfielder Herrera has not given up hope of sneaking fourth spot.
“We are going to fight for it. Of course at the moment it’s in the hands of Chelsea but we still have six points to play (for),” the Spaniard told United’s YouTube channel.
“The Champions League is where this club should be always and that’s why it is very, very important. Winning titles and playing in the Champions League is the history of this club.
“Football is sometimes like this, you have to wait for some results and the only thing we can do is to try to win both games, first of all Huddersfield away.
“We didn’t win (there) last year so it’s a good challenge for us. Don’t go crazy about the game of Chelsea (at home to Watford), just think about ourselves.”
United’s points tally initially soared after Solskjaer replaced the sacked Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford in December.
However, the Norwegian manager has endured a rocky couple of months, which have included FA Cup and Champions League exits, as well as a slump in their league form.
The 20-time champions squandered an excellent opportunity to overhaul their top-four rivals when they surrendered a lead to draw 1-1 with Chelsea last weekend.
Juan Mata, who put United ahead in that game against his former club, echoed the comments of his compatriot Herrera.
“We can still qualify so I think we have to believe until the end and first we should focus on our job, which is not thinking about others but trying to get six points and then wait. It’s the only thing we can do,” said Mata.
“It’s not impossible yet. We have done a very difficult job coming from where we were to be where we are in the table and we want to try until the end second of the Premier League to try to get into the top four.”
Opponents Huddersfield, who beat United 2-1 at the John Smith’s Stadium last term, have picked up just three wins and 14 points during a torrid second season in the Premier League.
Despite the Terriers’ struggles, Mata insists they cannot be underestimated.
“Huddersfield, they are relegated, they didn’t have a great season but last season they did brilliantly, it was a very difficult place to go, I can tell you that,” he added.
“We have to be professional, we have to go there and expect a difficult game because they will be trying to show that even though they are relegated they can beat Manchester United so we have to be ready for that.”
Crowned United’s player of the year in four of the past five seasons, there is little chance of the 28-year-old picking up the award again this term given the way things have gone recently.
De Gea has made a series of high-profile blunders as talk about his future continues, with last weekend’s gaffe allowing Chelsea to seal a 1-1 draw that hampers United’s top-four hopes.
It has led to widespread debate about whether the goalkeeper should start at Huddersfield, but Solskjaer confirmed that the Spaniard will play this weekend.
“I would think so, yeah – or he will play,” Solskjaer said.
“Sergio was injured yesterday so he didn’t train. He tweaked his knee and David’s been training well this week.
“Of course we trust him, he’s been fantastic this season. Towards the end now he’s been in the headlines maybe for the wrong reasons, but, as I’ve said so many times, he has to deal with that.
Ole: "The goalkeeping department are a fantastic, tight-knit group with Emilio, Sergio, Lee and David. They've obviously experienced better times than just now, but [David's] ready for Sunday." #MUFC pic.twitter.com/BZquUKB0uY— Manchester United (@ManUtd) 3 May 2019
“The goalkeeping department are a fantastic group together, with Emilio (Alvarez, goalkeeping coach), Sergio, Lee (Grant) and David.
“They’ve been such a tight-knit group, so they’ve experienced better times obviously than just now but he’s ready for Sunday.”
Asked if Romero would have started at Huddersfield if he had not sustained a knee injury, Solskjaer said: “Ifs and buts and hypothetical questions. Sergio knows how highly I rate him.”
Eric Bailly will miss Sunday’s trip due to a season-ending medial ligament injury in his right knee, while Solskjaer ruled out teenager Mason Greenwood with an issue of his own.
Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard were conspicuous by their absence from Wednesday’s part-open training session, but forward Marcus Rashford was involved after a shoulder issue.
“We’ve got a few niggles and a few injuries,” said Solskjaer, who was spiky when asked the names of those doubts.
“We’ve still got two days, today and tomorrow, to see who gets on the pitch. We missed a few last week.”
United desperately need a shot in the arm at the John Smith’s Stadium after losing seven of their last 10 matches in all competitions.
It leaves sixth-placed United three points off the Champions League spots with two games remaining, and facing the prospect of trying to attract elite players to a side playing Europa League football next term.
“In the long-term planning, we have to think about we might be in the Champions League next year because we’ve got a chance,” Solskjaer said.
“We might not be, and you would be surprised how many agents have been touting their players… not touting, that’s not the best word, is it? It’s just like telling us that their players, their clients, would love to be a part of Man United in the future.
“That’s just the lure of Man United because they know, with the potential here, the size of the club, that we will in the end get back to good days.
“Yeah, we’re having a tough time at the moment. We’ve had a few seasons that we’ve not got up to the standards we expect. But that’s up to me, up to the club that we change it as quick as possible.
“If it’s a season without the Champions League, who knows? But players still want to come to Man United and you probably wouldn’t be surprised but you would be surprised on the names that you get asked.”
Noise around transfers is increasing as the summer edges closer, so too talk around United’s search for a technical director.
“I’ll have a final say if players come in or go out and we’ve got regular meetings,” Solskjaer said.
“I’m happy with the way it’s going and we’re supposed to sign 250 players because you are all writing about players that we should sign.
“Hopefully we can get players in that you haven’t written about as well, you never know.”