It’s been a miserable campaign for Manchester United, but despite all their suffering, they could still qualify for next season’s Champions League. Nick Miller previews the weekend’s Premier League action by highlighting its most compelling storylines …
Manchester United can salvage their season
Roy Keane’s assertion that this current crop of Manchester United players are “bluffers” is a subjective call you can agree with or not, but there’s one problem that you can’t get around: United haven’t scored a goal from open play in 527 minutes of football, and not one of any description in 280.
They’ve lost seven of their past nine games — most recently in Wednesday’s 2-0 loss at home to Manchester City — and the last time they had a comparable run was at the end of the 2000-01 season, when they lost six of their last 10. The difference there was they had wrapped up the title by the middle of April and, to say the least, were winding down; in one game they fielded a midfield of Ronnie Wallwork, Michael Stewart, Luke Chadwick and Quinton Fortune. The cruel might say any of those four would stroll into the United team today.
When a team goes into what amounts to an existential crisis like this, the understandable temptation is to immediately look for the wider view, to pull back and consider the fundamental, long-term problems that need fixing. But there’s the short term to think about too: even after this calamitous run, they are still only three points behind Chelsea in fourth, and if they can conjure a goal or two to beat them on Sunday, they could still stumble into the Champions League and salvage something from this season.
– Mitten: United would be foolish to let Pogba go
Should Klopp use his squad?
Jurgen Klopp suggested this week that because of the way Liverpool’s remaining games are spaced out, he won’t necessarily have to rotate his players for the purpose of keeping them as well-rested as possible. He could, in theory, put out his best XI in every one, but might it be sensible to rotate a little in Friday’s game against Huddersfield for the sake of his second string, rather than the first?
Huddersfield have lost 20 of their past 22 games, and at the moment they carry a sort of haunted air, a dead look in their eyes that says they just want this season to be over. In theory, Klopp could play the collection of teenagers that won the FA Youth Cup on Thursday night and still beat them.
But rather than doing that, might it be worth giving some fringe men a run-out against Huddersfield so they retain some sharpness should they be needed in a more meaningful situation in the next few weeks? Xherdan Shaqiri is the most obvious candidate, a man who could be valuable but has only played 19 minutes since the start of February, but there’s also Adam Lallana, Divock Origi, Daniel Sturridge, even Alberto Moreno, who might get a game if only because Andrew Robertson is one booking away from a suspension.
The title race is not over yet …
“Is Burnley a place I would love to have on the schedule for us now? No, honestly not. It is not a place where you think: ‘Oh nice, we are going to Burnley. Easy points.'”
Klopp wasn’t just playing mind games when he suggested that Manchester City would not be able to just stroll up to Turf Moor on Sunday and make off with a victory on their relentless charge to the title. In some ways, City are more likely to drop points there than they ever were against Manchester United on Wednesday.
Burnley’s point at Stamford Bridge on Monday was their 28th since the turn of the year, and only four teams are above them in a table of only the second half of the Premier League season. Sean Dyche’s side have found their form, and they could still provide an upset and keep Liverpool in this title race.
Spurs just have to survive West Ham clash
With three games remaining and a top-four spot not safe by any means, it is in theory hugely irresponsible to suggest that Tottenham should take it easy against West Ham on Saturday. But if you could ever forgive a team for punting a game, it’s this one: with their Champions League semifinal against Ajax a few days later, there’s only one priority for Mauricio Pochettino’s side.
Really, Pochettino should rest as many players as he dares against West Ham, not least the likes of Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. Son Heung-Min is suspended for the Ajax game, so he should start, but the rest of them must be protected: Tottenham’s task this weekend is to emerge intact for their big night on Tuesday.
What to do with Knockaert?
Chris Hughton has an interesting dilemma ahead of Brighton’s game against Newcastle on Saturday. With Cardiff facing Fulham earlier in the day, they could start the game level on points with Neil Warnock’s side, and since their other remaining games are against Arsenal and Manchester City, a win is imperative.
For the past two games, Hughton has gone for the ultrasafe approach and two terrific, if terrifically negative displays earned a point against Wolves and nearly did at Tottenham. These were two triumphs of collective will, of players meshing together and declaring that (almost) none shall pass. With that in mind, should Hughton pick Anthony Knockaert?
The Frenchman was not the most popular man after his absurd and irresponsible red card against Bournemouth a few weeks ago, but now, his suspension served, he’s available again. Can Hughton — and more to the point, the other Brighton players — trust him? The tricky thing is that Knockaert brings potential attacking inspiration, something that Brighton have severely lacked, as they haven’t mustered a single goal in their past seven games. It would be a gamble to disturb the collective that has served them so well, but it might be a gamble Hughton has to take.