Sport Premier League

Friday 22 September 2017

Four into two won't go in battle for the big time

Manchester United's Marcus Rashford. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA

Chris Bascombe and Jeremy Wilson

As the battle for places in the Champions League reaches its decisive phase, Chris Bascombe and Jeremy Wilson run the rule over the clubs who have so much to win – and lose

Liverpool

Run-in

Liverpool have not scored against Southampton in three games this season, while trips to West Ham usually coincide with Andy Carroll’s first game and goal in months and a subsequent campaign to get him an England call-up. But if Liverpool fail to beat Middlesbrough at Anfield on the last day, they do not deserve the Champions League.

Current mood

Erratic. Weirdly, they seem calmer on the road than at Anfield. They have dug out wins at tough venues, but then self-destructed, suffering momentarily paralysis in front of their own anxious supporters against Crystal Palace. The win at Watford has restored hope, but supporters remain scarred having missed out on so many recent targets.

What’s holding them back?

Injuries. To lose Sadio Mane at such a key stage was dreadful luck. So too when Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana were absent. Captain Jordan Henderson has missed most of the season. A full-strength Liverpool would have gone closer to the title. Now they are dragging themselves to the finish.

Key man – Adam Lallana

Coutinho is the obvious choice, but Lallana transforms how Liverpool play. He is the trigger for the high pressing game, forcing opposition defenders into mistakes. That allows Coutinho and Firmino to become more penetrative.

Cost of failure

Psychologically and financially as traumatic as losing last season’s Europa League final. Liverpool deserve to be where they are with three games to go. They need to restore their place among the elite if they are to attract players of Virgil van Dijk’s calibre.

 

Manchester City

Run-in

With three games at the Etihad, the fixture list looks generous for Pep Guardiola. But Palace arrive this weekend needing a win to guarantee safety and they have the ammunition to cause problems. Leicester and West Brom might already be in holiday mode. City should be confident of finishing third.

Current mood

Underwhelmed by a season which promised so much but can now deliver no more than a par score. If City do not qualify for the Champions League, it would be an extraordinary failure. Nobody of sound mind believes Manuel Pellegrini is a better coach than Pep Guardiola, but plenty are whispering not much has improved yet.

What’s holding them back?

Guardiola has argued the injury to Gabriel Jesus was significant, but such complaints sound hollow when you have Sergio Aguero at your disposal. The reality is this has been a transitional year, Guardiola implementing a new style of play. His players are still trying to adjust and this has bred inconsistent results. There is view life at City is more complicated than it needs to be.

Key man – Vincent Kompany

City always look like they will score. When Kompany is fit they have the solidity they need in defence. Without him, despite a massive outlay on defenders, their vulnerability is evident. Guardiola may suggest Jesus’s return is pivotal, but they have given away too many daft goals. If Kompany plays for the rest of the season, they will be fine.

Cost of failure

A major inquest and broad debate between those who regard any criticism of Guardiola as akin to blasphemy and others who believe – despite Pep’s undisputed greatness – he and his admirers were condescending to ignore the demands of English football. It may not be better but it is different to Spain and Germany. Ignoring that, failing to adjust, smacks of tactical arrogance.

Manchester United

Run-in

The toughest of those chasing fourth; they have a trip to Arsenal followed by Tottenham away. United will probably need four points from those two games. On the flip side, Jose Mourinho loves to defy expectations. United may prefer this to a routine home game.

Current mood

Torn between focusing on domestic or European matters. Their (possible) three remaining games in the Europa League look less daunting than the four in the Premier League. Win in Europe and they will be in the Champions League, enabling them to settle for fifth or sixth. Mourinho will want both routes secured but will be thankful for the added security.

What’s holding them back?

Injuries and fixture congestion. There is a suspicion Mourinho has made more of this than necessary, of course. For the best part of 30 years the demands of fighting on all fronts proved no obstacle to Old Trafford dominance, but Jose misses no chance to create a siege mentality. The injury to Zlatan Ibrahimovic was bad luck, however.

Key man – Marcus Rashford

With Zlatan out, goalscoring is United’s problem. Rashford now has a more central role and is demonstrating his potential in flashes. His maturity belies his age, but he must grow up even swifter if he is going to lead the line in a European semi-final and final – as well as at the Emirates and White Hart Lane.

Cost of failure

A second consecutive season without Champions League football is inconceivable at Old Trafford. Mourinho believes he belongs on that stage, as do his most expensive signings. Mourinho will offer several mitigating circumstances should his side fail. Many will buy into his theories, but it will add to the pressure next season. For him to miss out once, narrowly, would be excusable but it would make qualification essential in a year’s time.

Arsenal

Run-in

Tricky. Away fixtures at Stoke City and Southampton are testing, even if the opposition is in that comfortable mid-table pack. Beating relegated Sunderland at home should be a formality but dropped points feel likely against both Everton and Manchester City.

Current mood

Deeply uncertain and lacking in confidence. From putting together a 19-match unbeaten run before Christmas, they have lost half of their last 16 games and seem desperate for the season to end.

What’s holding them back?

The failure to resolve uncertainty over key players and the manager has had a gradually corrosive fate once the team came under pressure. Arsene Wenger’s situation has created an excuse for misfiring players and Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil’s performances have dipped.

Key man – Alexis Sanchez

He has scored 19 Premier League goals this season and is the best hope to inspire them to an increasingly-unlikely positive finish. Failing that, Danny Welbeck, Olivier Giroud or Theo Walcott must step up.

Cost of failure

There is the financial hit of around £20-£30 million but that is less essential now given the enhanced domestic television income. It makes attracting players the wider issue, although other big clubs have shown over recent seasons that not playing in the Champions League can actually be a blessing domestically. Arsenal’s squad has certainly repeatedly failed to maintain a push across every competition, particularly when they have so consistently also made the knockout phase of the Champions League. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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