Any Hope for Manchester United or Arsenal to Secure a Top-Four Finish?

Manchester United's English striker Marcus Rashford (C) celebrates scoring the opening goal with team-mates during the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford in Manchester, England on April 16, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / OLI SCARFF)

This past Premier League weekend has caused a few eyebrows to be raised, just as the season finish started looking predictable. Before the games were played, Chelsea had maintained their seven-point advantage over second-place Spurs, and Manchester United seemed destined for another season in the UEFA Europa League, should they fail to win it this term.

Any Hope for Manchester United or Arsenal to Secure a Top-Four Finish?

Even though Jose Mourinho’s team have two games in-hand over third-place Liverpool and one over their city rivals in fourth, a look at the remaining fixtures wasn’t a very pleasant sight for them.

They were to host league leaders Chelsea on Sunday, and a win by the London Blues would have all but ended their hopes of a top-four finish. The current form of the two teams, as well as the memory of their meeting at Stamford Bridge earlier this season, wasn’t encouraging either. Add the fact that they had to keep one eye on the Europa League fixture against Anderlecht on Thursday, and a defeat-announcing shadow seemed to be looming over Old Trafford.

But Mourinho did what he does so well – he successfully stifled the (arguably) best team in the league. The tactics he deployed were spot on, as the visitors failed to register a single shot on target throughout the 90 minutes. Ander Herrera was tasked with keeping Eden Hazard quiet and he delivered, relieving his team-mates of a huge burden. After the questionable way in which the Spaniard stopped a Chelsea attack, Marcus Rashford opened the scoring just seven minutes in, and Herrera himself set the final score just four minutes after the half-time break.

With these three points, Manchester United unexpectedly managed to stay in the race for a spot leading to Europe’s most prestigious club competition, if only for a little while. With away matches against Manchester City, Arsenal and Spurs still to come, the respite seems like it’s going to be a brief one, unless the Red Devils can use this victory over their manager’s former club as a source of motivation for further surprises. They also travel to the Saint Mary’s Stadium before the season is out, where an angry Southampton team will be waiting to revenge themselves for the defeat in the EFL Cup final, one that they rightly feel should not have happened.

All in all, it doesn’t look good for Manchester United regarding top-four placement, and winning the Europa League just might be the best chance they have to reach the next season’s Champions League.

Arsenal managed to walk away with three points this past week as well, after beating Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium. Goals from two players with attitudes that have been heavily criticised lately, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, were enough to make sure the Gunners left with the whole prize in the bag, with Alvaro Negredo giving the home side some brief hope in between.

But for Arsenal it seems too late now, at least when securing a Champions League spot is concerned. With the same number of games played as Manchester United, they trail Liverpool in third by nine points and Manchester City in fourth by seven. And like United, they also have a rough ride ahead. Quite apart from having yet to play away to Spurs (with title hopes alive after Chelsea’s defeat), as well as Manchester United, they first play title-holders Leicester. They also play Southampton away, and welcome Everton in the last round, and the Toffees, currently in seventh with the same point-tally but two games less to play than Arsenal, might well be hoping to secure Europe themselves in that game.

It is therefore pretty reasonable to assume that Arsenal will not qualify for the Champions League, after 19 years of consecutive appearances in the competition.

This is without a doubt the toughest time Arsene Wenger has been through since he became the manager of the club in October of 1996, and the shouts for his sacking (against him being given a new contract this summer actually) by a large number of fans are extremely loud. From the stands of the Emirates Stadium, on social networks, even in the streets occasionally, they can be heard everywhere.

This season’s performances and results aside, perhaps it was time for the club to move on from Wenger earlier. It has been a long while now since they ‘ve achieved anything of note, and with competition in the Premier League getting stiffer by the season, a brain with some fresh and progressive ideas at the helm is probably what the club needs to move forward again, not to mention to quell the rage of their supporters. They have been stagnating for far too long now.

The failure of the club and Wenger himself to recognise the right time to part ways has undoubtedly brought about this heated attitude towards him, and many now all too easily forget all the things he should be praised for. In his prime, he instilled fast-flowing and technical football, which was a welcome change compared to the traditional English approach to the game. He also produced and helped develop some absolute world-class players in the process. The likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Cesc Fabregas, Robin Van Persie, and many others will always have a lot to be thankful for when it comes to Arsene Wenger, and the domestic trophies he has won, as well as reaching the Champions League final in 2006, which they lost due to some bad luck, are all moments Arsenal fans should always remember and respect.

But it is definitely time for both him and the club to move on.

Given how things are shaping up for Arsenal and Manchester United, it looks like Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester City are poised to be the clubs representing the English Premier League among Europe’s elite next season, though in which order still remains  to be sorted out.

Spurs will be doing whatever they can to keep up the pressure on Chelsea in the race for the title, boosted by the fact that the gap is now reduced to only four points. Should Antonio Conte’s team fumble again, it will become highly exciting.

Liverpool and Manchester City have lost all realistic hopes of the title and are now battling to secure direct placement into the Champions League by finishing third and avoiding the nuisance of a potentially tricky qualifying round. The Reds of Merseyside have a two-point advantage over the Manchester Blues, but the latter have a game in-hand.

There is very little doubt that the Premier League is set to become even more competitive than it currently is, though many feel that it has been the most competitive in Europe for a long while already. Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs, with their big-name managers, are set to continue with their habit of spending on stellar signings. Liverpool finally look like they have found the path back to the top, while Spurs are emerging as a force to be reckoned with too. Even Everton are showing signs of higher ambition, with their owners announcing plans for a new, significantly bigger stadium.

It will be an interesting end to the season, and then a busy summer. After that – the cycle begins again.

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