The odds on Manchester United securing a top-four finish this season have drifted out to 9/2 following their worst ever start to a Premier League campaign. The Red Devils are now just two points above the relegation zone after slumping to a dismal defeat at St James’s Park on Sunday. They have now fallen well behind Arsenal, Chelsea and even Leicester in the top four odds at the best online sports betting companies. Man Utd could, therefore, require another Europa League triumph if they are to secure Champions League football next season.
They finished sixth under Jose Mourinho in 2016/17, but beat Ajax in the Europa League final and clinched a spot at Europe’s top table for the following term. That should have provided the springboard for them to regain a place among Europe’s elite clubs, and optimism abounded after they signed Romelu Lukaku for £75 million that summer. Yet Man Utd have since regressed dramatically, first under Mourinho and then under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Alan Shearer said it is the worst Man Utd team he can remember, and it is hard to argue with him.
That could make it difficult for Man Utd to win Europe’s secondary competition this season. They began the campaign as favourites to lift the trophy, but they have now fallen below Arsenal in the bookies’ estimations. Unai Emery’s men lost to Chelsea in the final last season, and it is easy to see them reaching the latter stages of the tournament this time around. Man Utd held them to a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford last week, but right now Arsenal would be narrow favourites to topple United over two legs, despite their defensive issues.
Yet Man Utd could certainly grow in stature as the season develops. They beat Chelsea 4-0 on the opening weekend and they have since been blighted by an injury crisis. If Pogba has a long spell in the team and key players like Anthony Martial, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw return from injury, they will be a much more formidable team. They should be strong defensively, with Harry Maguire and Wan-Bissaka tightening things up in front of the generally reliable David De Gea and Axel Tuanzebe emerging as a real talent.
They do look light in midfield, but Scott McTominay played well against Arsenal and Pogba is a world-beater on his day. Marcus Rashford has been misfiring up front, but he has been starved of service and he could fare better with Anthony Martial relieving the burden alongside him. Daniel James looks like a great signing, and Man Utd should be able to break with pace, flair and dynamism for the rest of the season. They can certainly beat Arsenal, and the other teams currently in the competition would not cause them too many sleepless nights.
Sevilla and Roma are decent teams, but they are a long way off competing for glory in La Liga and Serie A. Wolves have enjoyed strong results against Man Utd, but they have a small squad and their form this season is patchy, while Lazio and Porto have not looked particularly convincing. The big wildcard is the prospect of a top team finishing third in the Champions League group stage and dropping down to the Europa League.
It happened in 2017/18, when Arsenal surely felt as though they could win the competition, only to come up against Atletico Madrid in the semis and suffer a narrow defeat. Inter are currently struggling in their Champions League group, while Spurs and Chelsea are both outside the top two in their groups and Real Madrid sits bottom of theirs. We will have a clearer idea of the task Man Utd face once the group stage is over, and in the meantime, they simply have to beat the teams in front of them and progress to the last 32.
Next up they face a doubleheader against Partizan and six points would certainly not go amiss for a team struggling for confidence. They certainly do not deserve to be Europa League favorites right now, but they could certainly win the competition if they play closer to their full potential and get a bit of luck with big teams not dropping into it. Silverware would lift the morale at the club, and qualifying for next season’s Champions League would at least help them recruit players in the summer, as a big overhaul of the squad is clearly needed.