Top four still a big ask

By Mark Payne

Whilst any win against Manchester City at the Etihad is not to be sneezed at, there remain more reasons for Manchester United fans to be wary than excited as the final furlong of this season approaches. The battle to save even a small amount of the season’s bacon remains very much in the balance.

Euphoria is a natural feeling to take into the week after the weekend’s victory. City fans were unbearably smug when Pep Guardiola’s appointment was announced a couple of months ago and recent events have served to put them back in the places.


Yesterday’s match felt more like a provincial affair than it has in a while with both sides out of the running for the big prizes. Being able to face up to colleagues and friends on a Monday morning is what derby victories are all about. There will be fewer sickies in Manchester this Monday.

Morgan Schneiderlein has been a starter on far too few occasions this season. United have won 58% of their games when he is on the teamsheet whereas that figure is only 28% when he is not. It was a breath of fresh air to see him selected ahead of Marouane Fellaini for this match.

United’s goal had more than a whiff of route one about it. David de Gea’s hoof was met by Juan Mata who exchanged quick passes with Schneiderlein before unleashing Rashford.

Juan Mata is good at building up a nice passing rapport with his colleagues and he seems to work well with Michael Carrick and Schneiderlein behind him. It just hasn’t happened often enough this term.

Whilst the result puts United within a point of fourth place they must still be regarded as outsiders to reach that position by the end of the calendar. The next two matches are against a capable Everton side and an imperious looking Tottenham. There are also games against Leicester and West Ham to come.

Form suggests that United can expect a mixed bag of results from those games. Ideally they would need to win six or seven of their remaining fixtures to finish the season fourth. Alas, I predict they may only win the games against Palace, Aston Villa, Norwich and Bournemouth. The other games are far from bankers.

The result was also better than the performance against City. United fashioned only five chances of any worth and City put together nearly twenty. Although United were worthy winners and could also have had a penalty, this is a Manchester City team with its foot off the gas.

This result and performance fit nicely into the narrative of Louis van Gaal’s reign at Old Trafford. A plus appears in the columns for youth and result, but performance, panache and consistency still elude the twenty-times champions.

The idea that Jose Mourinho has signed a pre-contract agreement this week emerged from an interview given by one of Jorge Mendes’s employees to Spanish newspaper el Pais. Crucially, it did not come from Manchester United.

Jose wants the job and his agent decided to apply pressure in the week United were knocked out of Europe by Liverpool. Expect a story like this everytime there is a bad result.

The final decision will be made by Ed Woodward, who is playing his cards close to his chest. He, it seems, is still hopeful that Van Gaal will come good.

The rest of us gave up on that a while ago. Fourth would still need a miracle.

Mark is the author of Fergie’s Last Stand, just £4 this March

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