They’ve won their last three games, they’ve got a forward bang in form and their rivals immediately above them are stuttering. Could Manchester United qualify for the Champions League?
That is the question the club’s fans are asking now following Sunday’s 2-1 win at Aston Villa, and with fifth place potentially enough for a spot at European football’s revamped top table next season, Erik ten Hag’s side are suddenly right in the mix.
Villa are still five points above them, but with 14 games of the season left, and other clubs above them in sight too, then it is no wonder than optimism is suddenly rising around Old Trafford. We asked our team what they make of it all.
Unbeaten in 2024, with five wins in six games, Manchester United are starting to look like a winning machine again.
That’s not to say they have become trophy challengers again. They clearly now have the jump on faltering Aston Villa in terms of form, but there is one underlying issue that means Spurs, or Villa, will pip them to fourth place.
Despite an upturn this year, United’s Premier League ’s goalscoring record is so poor, and not one that guarantees a long range tilt at top four. Just 33 goals. Everyone else in the top seven is in the 50s.
Maybe Rasmus Hojlund is finding his touch, and while they have Alejandro Garnacho and Marcus Rashford too, all are stuck on five goals in the league. You don’t finish top four with Scott McTominay as your top marksman. He’s currently on just seven goals.
Two lucky wins, in which they had to survive 45 goal attempts, doesn’t make Manchester United Champions League material. They were flattered by a 3-0 win against West Ham, and pinned back in their own half for long periods at Aston Villa on Sunday, so spare us the propaganda that Erik ten Hag is a genius.
He still doesn’t know his best central defensive partnership and he’s still more likely to get a tune out of a subway busker than £85million enigma Antony. Let’s put it this way: If United had to play at Tottenham, Brighton or Brentford tomorrow, would you back them to win?
If the answer is ‘No’ in one, two or all three instances, then a top-four finish is likely to be beyond them. United teams built on conviction would go to those places and dominate the ball, swarm all over their opponents and take away most of the points.
As for going to Anfield, the Etihad or the Emirates… don’t even think about it. After 18 months of Ten Hag, we still don’t know whether United are best when they press high or sit deep – and nor, by the looks of it, does he.
So Champions League football at Old Trafford next season? If there are only four places up for grabs, the chances are slim and none. And slim is out of town right now.
The top four, in my opinion, will end up being made up of Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham. That means Manchester United will be relying on the Premier League, sneaking a fifth Champions League slot.
There are extra places available for next season’s new-look competition and at the start of the season it looked like a shoo-in for English clubs to get a fifth slot. But United crashing out in the group stage did no-one any favours – especially themselves. However, if City and Arsenal go deep into the knockout stages then all is not lost.
And I fancy United to push Aston Villa very close for fifth. United have been a streaky team all season. They go on good runs – Erik ten Hag was Manager of the Month in November, for goodness sake – and then get derailed with one bad result.
But if you look at their next seven games, they only face one opponent who is above them: Manchester City. If you wanna get into Europe they have to expect to beat Luton, Fulham, Everton, Sheffield United, Brentford and Chelsea. I think United will sneak into the Champions League by the skin of their teeth.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Yes, Manchester United have won three Premier League games in a row. But they still don’t look anything like the real deal – and they still rely on Scott McTominay to score crucial late headers to win.
United have scored 33 goals in 24 league games this season – the same number as Luton and Fulham. Rasmus Hojlund has found form, scoring five in his last five, but they can’t be pinning their hopes on a 21-year-old rookie striker. There is a distinct lack of strength in depth in key positions, which is sure to come back to bite them in the run-in.
All that said, they could well close the gap to the top four in the next month, with matches against Luton, Fulham and Nottingham Forest on the horizon. But if we’ve learned anything from the Erik ten Hag era, it is that there have been many false dawns before. When it comes to the crunch, I am not backing United to come up clutch.
Yes, but only if qualification extends to the fifth place. Manchester United aren’t going to catch the top three – forget that – so you’re talking about fourth or fifth place to qualify for the Champions League.
With potentially four more games in the FA Cup, Erik ten Hag’s players aren’t going to be over-worked, so they’ll stay relatively fresh. I think that will matter because a few of them are still in their first full season – Alejandro Garnacho, Rasmus Hojlund and Kobbie Mainoo – for instance, so that will help.
Their problems are at the back with Lisandro Martinez’s absence. Villa should have earned themselves a point and Ten Hag’s side got out of jail at Molineux.
Who are they going to overhaul? It was a big weekend for Spurs. I think they’ll nab fourth but Utd might sneak fifth from Villa who are struggling themselves defensively. If Unai Emery loses Ollie Watkins, Villa will be hard pushed to keep their momentum. So, a tentative ‘yes’ but they still look miles off the pace set by the top three.
Will Manchester United qualify for the Champions League? Have your say in the comments section
Every so often there are moments when you’re watching football matches, even passively, when you wonder if you’re witnessing the same game the coaches are. Unai Emery is a brilliant manager who has done a superb job at Aston Villa, but how on earth he looked at Leon Bailey enjoying a generous helping of Victor Lindelof on toast and decided to change it is beyond me.
Sunday’s game altered there, and while credit should go to Erik ten Hag for picking his moment – something United have been good at in recent years regardless of their manager or their struggles – it still felt a bit more like Villa tripping themselves up than anything the visitors did to impact the game.
United still don’t convince you that they can do that on a consistent basis, and I’d still say Villa are a more cohesive side than them, while I’m happy to back Tottenham and their calm, cool culture imposed by Big Ange to come fourth. In the Premier League’s zero sum game that leaves United sixth, and on the balance of what we’ve seen so far that table wouldn’t lie.
After 24 Premier League matches, Manchester United have a goal difference of zero and you have to go as far down as 13th-placed Bournemouth to find a team that has scored fewer. So, let’s not get carried away by a run of three victories, the last of which was a slightly unlikely one against an Aston Villa team who dominated large parts of the game.
But leaving aside a trip to the Etihad at the beginning of next month, United have a series of very winnable fixtures immediately ahead of them. Six of their next seven Premier League games are against teams below them in the table.
But while there has been distinct improvement in this United team, is it better than Villa and Spurs, the sides above Eric ten Hag’s sixth-placed men? The answer, quite simply, is no. And that is why there will be no Champions League football at Old Trafford next season.
I think Manchester United will finish fifth. It’s unclear at this stage whether that will be enough for the Red Devils to qualify for the Champions League, but I can’t see anyone forcing Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City out of the top four.
Although Aston Villa sit one point off Spurs in fourth, they have endured a drop off in form of late, having won two of their last seven Premier League fixtures. With European football set to come back in the next month, I fear that Villa are going to slump down the table.
This would leave a gap for United to jump into. Erik ten Hag’s side sit sixth, five points behind Villa but they have won their last three league matches and are hitting form at a good time. They are also not in Europe and face much less disruption compared to Villa. If United can keep Rasmus Hojlund fit and firing, then I have no doubt they will finish fifth. With five goals in his last five matches, he is that important at the moment.
Meanwhile, Newcastle are five points worse off than United in seventh, but I feel that they aren’t consistent enough both offensively and defensively to challenge the top six. I think the Magpies will finish seventh, with Chelsea eighth, Brighton ninth and West Ham in 10th.
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United have gathered some momentum but I still think they have given themselves too much to do – even if five Premier League teams qualify for the Champions League.
Erik ten Hag’s team are really grinding out the results at the moment and three successive wins have got the Old Trafford fans excited again. But performances have to improve significantly if the Reds are going to nudge ahead of Aston Villa and Tottenham in the final Premier League table.
United are relying too much on individual moments of genuine quality at the moment. Until they start to dominate games from start to finish then they remain outsiders, in my opinion.
United have a couple of “winnable” games approaching, but at the moment it wouldn’t be a surprise if they dropped points at Luton or at home to Fulham. Until that stops then they can’t be considered serious contenders for Champions League qualification.
There are two ways of looking at this. The fact Scott McTominay has become Manchester United’s unlikely saviour is testament to Erik ten Hag’s ability to resurrect once unsalvageable careers, and isn’t that the DNA of a Champions-League qualifying team?
McTominay’s game-winning header against Aston Villa was not only the latest episode in the Scotland international’s redemption arc but evidence of United’s ability to find ways to win. Also: Manchester United + super-subs = winning!
The other way of looking at this is United’s undying reliance on McTominay to pop up with crucial goals (his seven goals have given Ten Hag’s side an additional 12 points, the most by any player in the Premier League, without which United would be stewing in 12th) points to a raft of weaknesses.
Once again, United failed to kill off a match, succumbing to a lack of control and needing to overload the box late on to save themselves. If they are to bridge the gap to the top five, that habit needs fixing, and fast. Until then, it’s apparently super-sub Scott McTominay to the rescue.
Will Manchester United qualify for the Champions League? Have your say in the comments section
United’s hopes of Champions League football next term rest on how many places English clubs are granted in the next edition of the competition.
If it’s four, I think Erik ten Hag’s men will come up short, given three are almost certainly going to be occupied by Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal. The idea of United managing to leapfrog BOTH Tottenham and Aston Villa between now and May is far-fetched given their own defensive frailties.
However, if a fifth-placed Champions League qualification then United could sneak in. Spurs have a history of struggling to hold their nerve, while Arsenal fans will confirm Unai Emery’s record when the going gets tough and the stakes are high isn’t fantastic either.
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