After needing extra time to navigate past Anderlecht in the quarter-finals of the Europa League, Manchester United face a demanding end to the season with nine fixtures between now and the final Premier League game of the season—an extra four games to contend with than Liverpool.
José Mourinho has to qualify for the Champions League next season with the money spent and ambitions of one of Europe’s most successful clubs. Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, however, league finishes of seventh, fourth, and fifth haven't lived up to the legacy of one of the game’s greatest managers. Six points behind Liverpool with two games in hand shouldn't be an insurmountable hurdle, but the fixtures and congested schedule will combine to make this quite an arduous task.
Sunday 23 April – Burnley (away)
Thursday 27 April – Manchester City (away)
Sunday 30 April – Swansea City (home)
Thursday 4 May – Celta Vigo (away)
Sunday 7 May – Arsenal (away)
Thursday 11 May – Celta Vigo (home)
Sunday 14 May – Tottenham (away)
Wednesday 17 May – Southampton (away)
Sunday 21 May - Crystal Palace (home)
Wednesday 24 May - Europa League final
Injuries to Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, Juan Mata, and Zlatan Ibrahimović do not help their team’s top four ambitions. Wayne Rooney’s decline contrasts sharply with the precocious Marcus Rashford’s rise, which makes rotating Rashford far more difficult than it should be. The fleet-footed Anthony Martial has the ability to be trusted, but Mourinho remains unconvinced by the 21-year-old’s application. There are still, however, 15 senior outfield players that are highly-paid for Mourinho to call on. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is another talented attacker who doesn't
Last season, Jürgen Klopp had to make changes in the league during Liverpool’s journey to the Europe League final. After a miraculous comeback against Borussia Dortmund on 14 April, Liverpool were in eighth place and nine points behind fourth-placed Manchester City with a game in hand. Klopp made ten changes and won away to Bournemouth before going full strength for a 4-0 win over Everton at Anfield. Three wins in a row—the Reds had beaten Stoke City 4-1 before these two league games—raised hopes of a late but unlikely charge for a top four finish.
After a routine Merseyside derby victory, Liverpool were seven points with a game in hand on third-placed Manchester City. Newcastle United, Swansea City, Watford, Chelsea, and West Bromwich Albion were decent fixtures to possibly close the gap. Manchester City finished the season poorly with only one win and two draws in four to end the Pellegrini era, but Liverpool could only manage one win and three draw in five to finish eighth. Arsenal were six points ahead after playing the same number of games and finished their campaign with three wins and two draws to ultimately pip Tottenham for second spot.
Of course, matters are different this season. Liverpool’s advantage over Manchester United this season is narrower than a seven point gap with a single game in hand. Goal difference would presumably keep Liverpool just ahead if both sides won their respective games, but Manchester United’s fixtures this season are far more challenging. Klopp made changes in the 2-2 draw with Newcastle before a first leg against Villarreal and made many more in the 3-1 defeat at Swansea that was sandwiched between both semi-final legs. Manchester United’s equivalent fixtures would be next Sunday’s home game with Swansea and the trip to the Emirates to face Arsenal.
From dismissing the Europa League in the past to relying on it to save his first season at Manchester United, playing at Friends Arena in Solna must be Mourinho’s priority. An away leg first before potentially sealing passage to the final in a second leg at Old Trafford should be preferable, but former Liverpool striker Iago Aspas will be a considerable threat to Manchester United’s ambitions. Celta, Lyon, and Ajax all need to win the competition to qualify for the Champions League next season, but Manchester United should be considered as favourites.
Liverpool’s two successive away wins against Stoke City and West Brom have set up a scenario where three wins from five will likely seal place in the top four. Arsenal are nine points behind with two games in hand but face a real test of their ambitions in an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City on Sunday. Arsène Wenger is likely to stay on but is arguably at the lowest point of his Arsenal career with the prospect of failing to achieve Champions League qualification for the first time in his tenure at the club. League games at home to Leicester City, away to Spurs, and home to Manchester United are all must-win games.
If Liverpool beat Crystal Palace to reach 69 points, Leicester City could effectively rule Arsenal out by taking points at the Emirates considering the games to come. Arsenal can reach a maximum of 78 points, but one defeat would drop that to 75. Liverpool would be within six points of that tally with a home win on Sunday, putting great pressure on Arsenal’s next three league games. Manchester United may be on an unbeaten run of 22 league games since losing 4-0 to Chelsea in October but have drawn 10 of those games. Beating Chelsea 2-0 was a fine result, but picking up draws in some difficult games will not be enough to reel in Liverpool.
Simply put, Manchester United and Arsenal have to keep winning games in the hope that Liverpool freeze. Arsenal currently have neither the unity nor the form to do so even though they usually finish the season well under Wenger, and Manchester United’s schedule will force Mourinho to choose a competition to focus on. An outside chance of a top four finish or push ahead for a Europa League final? Jürgen Klopp faced a somewhat similar question last season, and while Sevilla could not be bested, league results suffered in pursuit of European glory.
A back three for the first time in 20 years helped Arsenal to an unconvincing win against Middlesbrough, but it is damning that Arsenal’s only away wins in 2017 have come against two teams currently in the relegation zone. Tottenham and Southampton won't be as accommodating as Middlesbrough and Swansea have been, but a distracted and rotated Manchester United may prove to be willing opponents. While Leicester City are much improved under Craig Shakespeare, there may be a hangover after a narrow Champions League quarter-final exit to Atlético Madrid.
Liverpool have a few injuries to contend with, but at this stage of the season, Jürgen Klopp is not the only manager with concerns. There wouldnt be enough of an excuse to fall out of the top four at this stage with Simon Mignolet, Emre Can, Georginio Wijnaldum, Philippe Coutinho, and Roberto Firmino all in fine form. Liverpool have adopted a slightly more reserved approach with Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana, and Sadio Mané as average player positions have shown to help grind out important wins.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have form and fixtures, but Wenger and Mourinho could destabilise their momentum over the next week in the FA Cup and the Premier League. Wenger’s desperation to show something tangible for a fraught campaign and Mourinho’s disdain for his great rival may conspire to open an opportunity for the Reds to take third, but first, Big Sam and his rejuvenated Crystal Palace.