Premier League Return: Can Manchester United Achieve Top Four?

Manchester United's need for top four

Finishing the season in the top four of the Premier League earns you a place amongst Europe’s elite in the UEFA Champions League. For the biggest clubs in the world - such as Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid - qualification for this tournament is considered the minimum requirement, whilst Manchester United have fallen away in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, having to settle for the Europa League.

However, after a questionable start, there could well be a reason to celebrate at Old Trafford before season’s end, with a late charge for the top four.

United are blessed in the form of stature and prestige that has been steadily cultivated on a global scale during the explosion of the English Premier League on the international stage, and so the club rarely struggle to persuade stars to move to the Theatre of Dreams.

The pull of top-class European football is desired though, and maintaining the club’s status in the Champions League will bring benefits to United, both commercially and professionally. Before the intermission, United were in scintillating form and are now unbeaten in their previous 11 matches in all competitions.

So, the question remains: can United achieve a top four finish in 2019-20? Currently, the club sit as the 7/4 underdogs behind Chelsea at 8/13 and Leicester City at 1/6.

The Impact of Bruno Fernandes

All hopes of securing such a result weigh on the lean, Iberian shoulders of Bruno Fernandes. The talismanic attacking midfielder joined the Red Devils from Sporting Lisbon in January for £47m after months of speculation, and duly did not disappoint.

Fernandes made his presence known around the country as he scooped the February Player of the Month Award for the Premier League and even controversially made his way into the BBC Team of the Season after just five games.

The Portuguese magician has hit the ground running since arriving at Old Trafford, registering three goals and four assists in all competitions, however, it’s not just about his sensational statistics.

By simply just watching United’s system with Fernandes compared to without him highlights his immense importance. The 25-year-old takes the offensive initiative and drives the team forwards, linking the midfield and attack seamlessly, something the club have missed without Paul Pogba.

Undoubtedly, Fernandes' form will be pivotal to United’s hopes of fighting back into the Champions League and kicking on thereafter.

The return of Pogba and Rashford

The resumption of the abruptly halted season means that players previously ruled out for the remainder of the year can now return, and Manchester United will receive a big boost in this area.

Their maverick midfielder Pogba is now fit and available for selection after a torrid time on the sidelines which has forced him to play just eight games across the board this campaign. The Frenchman has been out of action since Boxing Day after previously injuring his ankle against Southampton in August.

On top of that, Marcus Rashford is also injury-free ahead of the restart and the England international’s presence will surely prove to be vital in front of goal. Rashford has been out since injuring his back against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup but had scored a remarkable 22 goals in 37 appearances for club and country prior to his mishap.

The tantalising prospective pairing of Pogba and Fernandes has had fans salivating since the latter arrived in Manchester and began to change the club's fortunes. Pogba's ability as a box-to-box midfielder with a high passing range should mesh well with Fernandes’ incisive offensive and goalscoring nature, despite fears that the two styles may clash.

Of course, time will tell, but the sheer availability of World Cup winner Pogba will cause opposition teams to rethink their strategies and it's fair to say we could witness a stellar long term partnership, as Fernandes is just 25 and Pogba only 27.

As for Rashford, this was his most productive season to date, which makes his injury-hampered last few months even more painful. With football now starting again, Rashford will be eager to get out there and produce alongside Fernandes and Martial as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer nears a return to full squad availability ahead of such a crucial moment in the season.

Solskjaer, who will have been in charge of United for 18 months to the day when they face Tottenham on June 19th, believes that his team have improved their chemistry during the break, with the Norwegian stating “as [they] got into contact training, you can see a little bit more of the edge but also the camaraderie and team bonding”.

This is only good news for United fans, who were already excited by the team’s potential following their current unbeaten run – a streak that has included wins over Chelsea and local rivals Manchester City.

An Intense finale

Manchester United could end the season strongly when looking at their run of games to close out their schedule. After an away trip to Spurs, United face Sheffield United, Brighton & Hove Albion, Bournemouth, Aston Villa, Southampton, Crystal Palace, and West Ham United before a vital clash against Leicester City on the final day.

This run of games sees United face five of the bottom seven, offering the club a huge opportunity to pick up points and solidify their top four bid. There are some tough games in there, as the Blades could well be ahead of the Red Devils in the table when they meet in two weeks.

Similarly, clubs like Crystal Palace have been a nuisance for United in recent years, having lost to the Eagles at Old Trafford earlier in the campaign. In truth, the first two games in the restart against Spurs and Sheffield will not just set the tone, but perhaps even decide their European position.

As it stands, United are three points adrift of a top four finish, lying in fifth place behind Chelsea. Plus, if City’s ban for breaching Financial Fair Play is upheld, a finish in fifth could be enough to secure Champions League football next season.

Of course, a top four finish will still be targeted by Solksjaer's men and in the case of a City ban, United would earn automatic qualification into Europe’s elite competition should they pip the Blues.

By Andrew Gamble