, August 01, 2021

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Manchester United Have the Means (and Fixture Slate) to Beat Growing Competition to Final Champions League Spot

  •   6 min reads
Premier League odds for Champions League qualification
Six squads are vying for Champions League qualification when the Premier League return, with Chelsea and Manchester United slightly ahead of the pack. Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA.

None among England’s elite had the precognitive powers to predict the impact this pandemic would have on the Premier League, so it’s important to count those few near-certainties in our midst at a time of such uncertainty.

Liverpool will probably accrue the six points they require to clinch their first top-flight title since 1990 if—or, as it seems, when—the season resumes. Manchester City will probably take second ahead of Leicester City—who sat five points clear in third when play was suspended due to the coronavirus—and the Foxes will probably make their return to the UEFA Champions League:

The top-four picture looks a lot murkier after that, however, especially considering Many City’s off-field transgressions and ensuing Champions League ban has opened up qualification to fifth place, much to the delight of rivals Manchester United, who occupy that space. City’s appeal against that suspension through the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) will begin in June, with the club denying the charges brought against them as “simply not true.”

Despite those pleas, City will not take part in the 2020-21 Champions League as things stand.

As a result, there is a lot to play for across the Premier League's 92 remaining matches, the first of which occur on Wednesday, June 17 with Aston Villa vs Sheffield United.

Eight points stands between fourth-place Chelsea and ninth-place Arsenal, though Mikel Arteta’s side have the good fortune of a game in hand (as do Sheffield United in seventh). Here's a look at the Champions League qualification odds for every side in the running.

In the driver's seat: Chelsea

Frank Lampard’s first season as boss at Stamford Bridge was on track to be a success at his old stomping ground, particularly after being prevented from making any new signings last summer:

Chelsea's fixture list is one of the most favourable of all the contenders, although they will have to face Man City in the second week of return as well as Sheffield United and Wolves, who are both aiming for European qualification. The Blues will also hope Liverpool wraps up the title before their mid-July face-off, which may afford Lampard's side a reprieve from facing a full first-team squad.

Best odds for fifth: Manchester United

Still, a team like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United will fancy their chances of finishing fifth or higher based on their run-in, with Tottenham, Sheffield and Leicester their most difficult foes remaining:

Arsenal and Sheffield United boast games in hand over their closest competition.

It could also work in United’s favour for games to be held without fans given five of their nine fixtures are due to be away from home. Wolverhampton Wanderers are in the same predicament, while Arsenal and Sheffield—each with 10 matches to play—have six road fixtures to settle. One could argue those games are all the more daunting when fixtures are likely to be packed into smaller windows in an effort to finish the campaign as swiftly as possible.

Not only that, but the Red Devils are still to face six teams currently in the bottom half of the table—Brighton, Bournemouth, Aston Villa, Southampton, Crystal Palace and West Ham back-to-back. None among those aforementioned rivals for the Champions League spots—even those with a game in hand—will face more than five.

A year or so after those slightly premature proclamations that Ole was “at the wheel,” the same appeared to be coming true—more genuinely, this time—prior to football’s suspension. Only Arsenal (eight matches) and Wolves (seven) had pieced together longer unbeaten streaks than United’s five in a row, the most recent of which was a 2-0 home win against rivals Man City (their third victory over Pep Guardiola’s side this term):

Fading fast: Tottenham Hotspur

On the other end of that form spectrum are Spurs, who haven’t recorded a win in their last three league fixtures (or six in all competitions), suffering knockouts in the Champions League and FA Cup prior to the postponement.

Jose Mourinho’s side are sure to be greatly boosted by the returns of Harry Kane and Heung-min Son when football does come back—two silver linings to the campaign’s delay. However, Football365 predicted even those may not be enough to secure European football next term:

Toughest road: Arsenal

Arteta’s growing promise in the red half of north London threatened to show up ‘The Special One’ following the clear improvements he had made at the Emirates Stadium in his first few months on the job. There’s little telling what improvements the Spaniard will have made with several more months to hone his craft during the lockdown period.

Unfortunately for Arsenal, the Gunners likely have the hardest fixture slate amongst the group–they'll face the top three in Liverpool, Man City, and Leicester, as well as their rivals for European competition in Wolves and Spurs. All of those Premier League matches don't account for their FA Cup tilt with another club hungry to qualify for a continental tournament in Sheffield United.

Arsenal director Josh Kroenke—son of owner Stan—has described the club as having a “Champions League wage bill on a Europa League budget,” a quote that resurfaced in light of the sensitive salary situation at the Emirates following the pandemic. The pinch has been felt in regards to what it could mean if Arsenal fail to get back into the Champions League—player sales and a smaller scope for squad investment included—but their form outside the Emirates poses the question as to whether that may remain outside Arteta’s reach, at least in his first season.

Winning their game in hand would take Arsenal level on points with Wolves and Sheffield, two teams whom Mourinho acknowledged as genuine contenders for the top places in February:

The Outsiders: Wolves and Sheffield United

Both outfits have garnered support from the neutral legions in their bids to further break up England’s upper echelon this season, but Nuno Espirito Santo and Chris Wilder are under immense pressure to prove they aren’t already past their peaks this term. The loss of home crowds in a behind-closed-doors arrangement could prove to be a particular hit for them.

Neither team has an easy finish to the campaign, not to mention the top-five hopefuls must face one another before all is said and done in what features as our #2 match to watch of the remaining Premier League slate.

Wolves must make a fast start upon returning as they face West Ham, Bournemouth and Aston Villa in that order, each of whom are among the bottom five teams.

The Blades have that game in hand that could take them up to fifth outright should they win, but Villa are their only remaining opponent in the current bottom six. As impressive as their first season back in the top flight has been, that run may hand Espirito Santo’s side the edge.

It wasn’t long ago that the Premier League’s top four was a closed-off club, now forced open to include a more eclectic bunch in recent years. The possibility of including fifth place as a result of City’s European ban is almost symbolic of the closer competition that’s emerged in that fight for a Champions League berth, even if it applies only to this season.

United will be only too happy to take advantage after a year of repeat financial losses following their drop back into the Europa League. A favourable fixture list should see Solskjaer’s side back into the continental spotlight if they can pick up where they left off, a comeback made all the sweeter if it were to come at City’s expense.

Predicted Premier League Top-Half Finishing Order

1. Liverpool

2. Manchester City

3. Leicester City

4. Chelsea

5. Manchester United

6. Arsenal

7. Wolverhampton Wanderers

8. Tottenham Hotspur

9. Sheffield United

10. Burnley

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