It’s fair to say that 2019/20 hasn’t been a vintage Manchester United season so far. Having finished sixth last year, United are once again languishing in the Europa League places, and there aren’t many signs of life right now.
At the time of writing, they’ve won just one of their last five league games. They’ve failed to score in four of those, with the nadir being a humiliating 0-2 home loss to Burnley. Marcus Rashford had been a standout player for the team in 2019 but even he’s out injured until at least April. It’s all a far cry from the highs of Ole’s arrival nearly a year ago, when he won eight of his first ten games, amassing the most points ever by an incoming Premier League manager.
And yet improbable as it seems, United have every chance of making the Champions League next season. They’re still only six points off fourth place, and – while Leicester seem nailed-on for third – big question marks surround all of United’s competitors for that coveted final spot.
Sheffield United (currently one point above United) were the favourites to go down coming into the season. Chris Wilder has clearly done a phenomenal job, therefore, but the Blades surely lack enough firepower to win the games needed to stay at their current lofty heights.
Next in line are Spurs. While they’ve moved up the table since sacking Pochettino, you-know-Mou hardly inspires confidence. Aside from taking jabs at record signing Ndombele, and calling an opposition coach “an idiot”, Mourinho’s also brought his typically unadventurous style to previously-exciting Spurs… with mixed results. Oh, and their best player – Harry Kane – is done for the season. And arguably their second-best player – Christian Eriksen – now plays for Inter Milan.
The current occupants of fourth place are a fascinating Chelsea side. While their youngsters have thrilled at times, they’ve also been wildly inconsistent. Stamford Bridge is no longer the fortress it used to be, and although Chelsea generally get up for the biggest games, they’ve lost to the likes of Hull City, Newcastle, Southampton and Bournemouth in the past couple of months. Finally, let’s not forget that Frank Lampard still has less than two years’ experience of management.
As ever, the most rational way to assess United’s chances is checking in with betting websites’ offers and odds. Per various sources, the bookies still have them pegged as third-favourites for that final spot, ahead of Sheffield United, but behind Chelsea and Spurs. With the price hovering at around 8/1, United are certainly considered outsiders right now. With only six points separating them and Chelsea, though, a couple of wins or losses either way could change the picture – and the odds – quickly and drastically. 8/1 looks like pretty good value to us right now.
That’s a lot of teams for Manchester United to get past but none of them are particularly intimidating obstacles, and there’s still a full third of the season to play. Also, while the mass media tend to portray United as constantly being ‘in crisis’, there are actually quite a few reasons for optimism in this Champions League race.
For starters, their record signing is about to finally return from injury. Paul Pogba has played only 70 minutes since September, and has made no secret of his desire to leave. Can Pogba still have a good influence on this team? Absolutely. On his day, we’re talking about one of the most well-rounded midfielders in the world, who can affect the game in a multitude of ways and drive his entire team to the win.
Next, while January wasn’t exactly the perfect transfer window for Ed Woodward et al, they still managed to get a massive deal over the line. Bruno Fernandes already got eight goals and seven assists in Portugal this season, and registered a ludicrous 33 goals from midfield in 2018/19. For a team like United, who do struggle to put the ball in the net, he could truly be the deciding force between the Champions League and Europa League next season. Fernandes’ first game already showed his impact, as he looked a technically dynamic, creative and physical presence.
The obvious question mark was, and still is, the forward position. Martial simply hasn’t stepped up to fill the void left by Rashford, and a panicked loan for Odion Ighalo on deadline day was hardly an inspiring signing. That said, Ighalo is hardly the joke some have made out. He scored 20 goals for Watford in their promotion season, then 15 in the Premier League the next. His 46 goals in China can be taken with a pinch of salt, but he was pivotal in helping Nigeria reach the African Cup of Nations semi-final in 2019. Ighalo can score goals – let’s not write him off just yet.