Sunday, March 22, 2015

Did United Just Secure the Top 4?

With their 2-1 victory at Liverpool today, United moved a step closer to the Top 4 finish that was their primary goal this season. The title seemed a step too far, there was no European football to vie for and cup runs almost always come down to a little luck. But after a troubling start to the Louis Van Gaal era, they were quietly moving up the table, even as many thought the quality of play and defensive, possession-first approach was stylistically and productively wanting. The loss to Arsenal at home in the FA Cup and Liverpool “top current form” in the league status heading into this game led many to believe they would pip United to that fourth spot. Some protestations arose after last week’s impressive thumping of Tottenham, though many put the win down to the abject performance of the North Londoners. The victory today has changed the narrative yet again, however, and while the season is not over and anything can happen in the last 8 games, Liverpool might look back on two mistakes in the game that turned the tide of the chase, coming on the tail of the iconic mistake that arguably cost them the title last season.

That mistake was made by one of their greatest players in history, falling down at the most inopportune of moments, just as they looked to be heading into halftime 0-0 against Chelsea, with a point enough to keep them atop the table with three winnable games to go. They lost that game 2-0 and City, of course, went on to win the title, with Liverpool dropping two more points chasing goals against Crystal Palace (incredibly blowing a 3-0 lead). Ironically, or aptly, it was the captain who was again to blame in this loss, as his stomp less than 45 seconds into his halftime substitution meant Liverpool would have to chase an equalizer a man down. Gerrard went as far as coming out to speak to the press afterwards, apologizing to his teammates and the fans; begging the question of what led him to such a mindless error so quickly after entering the game. Some believe it is his irritation and disappointment at not starting the game and becoming increasingly peripheral in his final season at Liverpool, but it is a pity that his most important contributions over the past two seasons cost them the title Gerrard so desperately wanted to bring back to Anfield and maybe a top four finish this season (and the over 60 million pound windfall that entails). The first Liverpool mistake came earlier from the man Gerrard replaced, 18 minutes after Mata had opened the scoring with a fine finish from a Herrera through ball, chipping it slightly over Mignolet and across goal. Liverpool were being overrun in the midfield, but a fine pass from Henderson found Sturridge at the edge of the box. Rather than shoot, he sent it across to a charging Lallana, who tried to pass it into the far corner, though it veered just outside the left post. It was a gild-edged chance and one he will look back at ruefully.

Mata’s second, on the other hand, was a thing of beauty. It started when the impressive Michael Carrick broke up play in the middle of the park, then sent a perfect pass forward to substitute Angel Di Maria. The Argentine paused for a moment then sent a sublime chip toward Mata, though a yard behind him. The Spaniard stopped, sized up the ball and then pulled off an unlikely side scissor kick that buried the ball in the far corner. It was one of the goals of the season, made more important when Sturridge blistered the ball past De Gea at the near post with 21 minutes to go. United earned a penalty in extra time, but Rooney was well saved by Mignolet, meaning he has now gone a decade since his last goal at Anfield. That will matter little to a United team that seemed to be floundering as recently as two weeks ago, even as they kept accumulating points.

Their lead over Liverpool has now risen to five points with only eight games to play, though those eight games include City at Home, Chelsea at the Bridge, a game at a suddenly resurgent Everton (even as they were the final English team in and then out of European football in less than 24 hours) and home against Arsenal in the penultimate game of the season. Liverpool arguably have an easier run in, though they head to the Emirates in two weeks and still have a game at Chelsea themselves. Southampton and Tottenham also won this weekend, keeping themselves at the edges of the race, particularly given that the Saints have arguably the easiest run-in of any of the Top 7 (with Spurs at home and City on the road their only games against the others) and the Spurs a close second (Burnley-A, Aston Villa-H, Newcastle-A, Southampton-A, Man City-H, Stoke City-A, Hull City-H and Everton-A).

Looking at recent history, it seems likely the Top 4 will finish as it now stands, with Chelsea, City, Arsenal and United heading to the Champions League (though not necessarily in that order). But all four still face tough fixtures and Chelsea appear to be in the midst of a mini-slump that could even see them lose the title, though it seems highly unlikely, particularly with the fortuitous 3-2 win over Hull. After going up 2-0 with two great goals in the first nine minutes, from Hazard and Costa, the Blues gave both back to Hull City in 73 seconds, leaving the sides level at halftime. Hull had several chances to take the lead in the second half and would have but for an incredible triplet of fine saves by Courtois in quick succession before equally poor goalkeeping by McGregor at the other end allowed Remy to score the winner with his first touch after coming on for Costa, who appeared to have a hamstring problem again.

Going back to United, without playing great for large parts of the season, they have lost few games and now stand on the precipice of returning to Europe and building on the major summer investment from last season. Van Gaal started with a system that neither the fans nor the players appeared to like and then recognized the fact and should be commended for his flexibility and willingness to abandon tactics that just weren’t working. The job is not yet done but they stand a step closer, attempting to again prove the pundits and their critics wrong. I’m not sure I would bet against them at this point!

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