Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag believes his side will qualify for the Champions League; Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp agrees. United need nine points from their last four games — three of them at Old Trafford — to finish in the Premier League’s top four, but then they should have beaten relegation battlers West Ham United on Sunday and didn’t.
A 1-0 defeat at the London Stadium saw Ten Hague and his players face a worrying end to the season. Liverpool are one point behind, although they have played one more match. However, Liverpool are on a six-match winning streak; United have won one of their last four.
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Klopp says he still thinks United will do it, but after Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Brentford on Saturday, he described the contest as “interesting”. Ten Haag’s side — missing key players, struggling to score and looking tired after a difficult season — are heading for the finish line, and there is a growing fear among supporters that they have lost all their energy and momentum when they most need it.
Champions League qualification, and the revenue it brings, is vital for Old Trafford’s accountants, but it will also shape how Ten Haag’s first season is viewed. Finishing in the top four, plus winning the Carabao Cup and reaching the FA Cup final would make the Dutch manager’s debut campaign an unthinkable success, given the chaos he endured a year ago. The mood around the club is on a knife edge though, and the summer will look very different if United slip past Liverpool into fourth, Manchester City win the treble and the ongoing battle for ownership ends with the Glazer family announcing they will stay
Winning the club’s first trophy since 2017 was a significant moment for Ten Hague, but it tells you how important the Champions League is that qualifying has been his top priority since arriving from Ajax. There is no suggestion that Ten Haag’s future as manager is in jeopardy, but it has been 10 years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and the last time a United boss has been in charge after being knocked out of the Champions League after a full season in charge.
Despite back-to-back defeats to Brighton & Hove Albion and West Ham, Ten Haag insists he is still confident of finishing in the top four. United need three wins from four games to qualify and face Wolverhampton Wanderers, Chelsea and Fulham at Old Trafford, as well as a trip to Bournemouth.
Their home record in the Premier League this season is P16, W12, D3, L1 – defeat against Brighton in August. Wolves and Fulham, 13th and 10th respectively, have little to play for, while Chelsea have won just once since Frank Lampard took over as caretaker manager. A miss from this position for United would represent a monumental collapse.
Yet some fans think United are doing just that. They have scored eight goals and lost 13 in their last 10 league games, while winning seven, scoring 21 goals and conceding just eight in the previous 10 league games.
Man United’s squad have already played 57 matches this season, but Ten Haag insisted after the defeat at West Ham that the slump in form had nothing to do with fatigue. However, sources have told ESPN there are concerns behind the scenes that the workload – which includes a winter World Cup in Qatar – is getting to the players.
Ten Haag’s view at the press conference played it down, with the 53-year-old, according to sources, feeling there is nothing to be gained by making excuses in public. Speaking at the London Stadium, he said “fatigue is in the head” had an effect, but United’s players had far more minutes on their feet than their Liverpool counterparts.
David de Gea, Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford have all played more minutes in all competitions than any Liverpool player, while defender Lisandro Martinez played just 57 minutes less than Virgil van Dijk despite missing last month through injury. Fernandes, meanwhile, has played 63 games for club and country since the start of the season — more than anyone else in Europe.
For the first time since September, United have a free week between games and, despite the defeat to West Ham, Ten Hague took the opportunity to give their players two days off ahead of Wolves’ visit to Old Trafford this weekend. He can only hope the rest will re-invigorate his players ahead of a run-in that includes a chance to halt City’s treble charge to the FA Cup final at Wembley on June 3.
Beat Wolves on Saturday and many worries over United’s place in next season’s Champions League will disappear. Anything less and a campaign that had shown so much promise for so long would be in danger of ending in disappointment.