Manchester United had been aided by a rather tame post-Christmas schedule to extend their unbeaten run in all competitions to eight games ahead of the Manchester Derby.
Pep Guardiola’s Cityzens came to town in a bit of a slump, but Jack Grealish’s second-half opener put them in a great position to stroll out of Old Trafford with three points and bragging rights. Then, in the space of four unforgettable and controversial minutes, the Red Devils turned the tide. A 1-0 deficit swiftly morphed into a 2-1 advantage. The Theatre of Dreams was alive and kicking.
United’s victory over their noisy neighbours solidified their legitmacy under Erik ten Hag. While a title charge may be out of their reach, they’re in an excellent position to return to the Champions League via a top-four Premier League finish.
Man Utd have two avenues into the Champions League next season. As it stands, a top-four finish appears more likely than a Europa League triumph given their opponents in the first knockout round.
Ten Hag’s couldn’t have asked for a trickier tie as they were paired against Barcelona in the play-offs. The victor will advance into the round of 16, where the likes of Arsenal, Real Betis and Real Sociedad await. They could also be joined by Juventus, Ajax, AS Roma, and Sporting CP should each of these teams win their respective play-off ties.
Thus, while United are one of the favourites to win the Europa League, the competition is a strong one.
In the Premier League, the Red Devils currently boast a healthy advantage over some of their projected rivals. While Newcastle have equalled their points tally having played a game more, United are comfortably ahead of Tottenham (five points), Liverpool, and Chelsea (both ten points) in the standings. Fulham, Brighton and Brentford are all European hopefuls, but none of these teams are expected to compete for a top-four berth.
So, while there is a long way to go, United are in a very strong position to qualify for the Champions League by securing a top-four finish.
Man Utd remaining Premier League fixtures (4th; Played 18, 38pts)
Newcastle remaining Premier League fixtures (3rd; Played 19, 38pts)
Tottenham remaining Premier League fixtures (5th; Played 19, 33pts)
Liverpool remaining Premier League fixtures (9th; Played 18, 28pts)
Chelsea remaining Premier League fixtures (10th; Played 19, 28pts)
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