Manchester United go into tonight’s home match against Southampton knowing that a win will raise them to third place in the Premier League with just three matches to go.
It is an incredible run for the Red Devils, who before lockdown were eight points behind third place Leicester City, three points behind fourth place Chelsea and just two points ahead of Sheffield United who had a game in hand.
Position at lockdown
The question heading into tonight’s game is how will the pressure affect Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his team? Will they hold their nerve and continue to play the free-flowing, attacking football that has got them to this position? Or will they start to get edgy?
Last season, United were in a similar position in the league and had a number of chances to catch Chelsea and go into fourth place, but they were just not able to take the initiative, drawing at home to Burnley, for example, in January, or losing to Wolves at Molyneux in April. In the end, a miserable home draw to Huddersfield on the 5th of May put paid to any chance of a grand finale to the race for Champions League places.
The Red Devils cannot afford any slip ups this time and tonight’s match is arguably the most important psychologically for them. With matches coming thick and fast and Solskjaer opting not to rotate, the team cannot be expected to turn on the style every time, but a win by whatever means is absolutely necessary. Anything else will send the jitters running through the side and the fan base and make the next game – a tricky trip to Selhurst Park to face Crystal Palace – a much more pressurized situation.
The pressure may be lifted or increased today if, as expected, the ruling on Manchester City’s UEFA ban appeal is announced. If the ban stands, fifth place will be enough to qualify for the Champions League, which will mean United are already in the box seat, three points ahead of Wolves in sixth and four ahead of Sheffield United in seventh. The game will still be important, but not quite as vital.
However, if the ruling is overturned or delayed, top four will be the aim and Solskjaer will know that he will probably have to take maximum points out of the last four games to achieve his goal.
Fortunately, the boss can once again count on an almost full-strength squad today, with Phil Jones and Axel Tuanzebe remaining the only absentees. The Saints will give Jannick Vestergaard a late fitness test but are otherwise also in good shape other than long-term absentees Moussa Djenepo, Sofiane Boufal and Yan Valery.
Tonight’s referee will be Chris Kavanagh and kick off at Old Trafford is at 8pm BST.
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