/ 19 February 2020

Race for Champions League descends into madness

Chelsea FC v Manchester United - Premier League
Harry Maguire of Manchester United celebrates scoring their second goal during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge. (Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

The hinges on the door to Europe have been blown to bits. Manchester United’s Monday night win against Chelsea made sure of that — like violent offenders breaking out of an asylum, a slew of contenders now will do anything to claw their way through the opening. With Manchester City also giving up their spot should their Uefa ban not be suspended, expect the frenzy to intensify as fifth spot suddenly becomes rich real estate. 

As the sparkers of this new rush, United would feel they deserve to be declared frontrunners, but to do so feels intuitively off. It’s a feeling one can’t escape. The most remarkable fact to emerge from the dust of Monday’s six-pointer was that a double over Chelsea had been secured for the first time in the Premier League. Of all the truly great Alex Ferguson teams spanning two decades, none had managed the feat. 

Yet for a statistic that seems so seismic on paper, nothing could feel so insignificant in reality. Such is Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s curse, that even the results he delivers seem to come riddled with asterisks. Instead of cheering his achievement, the murmurs in its aftermath have instead centred around the drops of fortune that fell his way and the unsustainability of his methods.

The approach Solskjær exhibited at Stamford Bridge has an unhealthy reliance on the opposition stuffing up. Instead of looking to create, the faux rope-a-dope strategy would have United absorb as much as possible before hitting on the counter. It worked this time but does nothing to solve the lack of ingenuity when United are expected to have the impetus: goalless performances against Wolves and Burnley being the obvious examples. The signs are that Bruno Fernandes has brought a tonic with him from Portugal — how effective it is will go a long way to determine if his new team are good enough for the upper quartile. 

Part of the reason Solskjær was rewarded this week was that inspiration at Chelsea is just as scarce; it’s easier to counter when the ideas being thrown at you are so bad. Frank Lampard keeps screening the same tired play. A first act of ball possession, followed by bouts of flawed build-up, all ending in a finale of missed opportunities. It’s time to alter course if he’s to remain in one of those Champions League spots.

After Lampard had long exhausted the kitchen sink, he remembered Olivier Giroud and threw him on to great effect (he was unfortunate that his ruthless header was a shade offside). From the beginning of the season, the manager had made clear that the Frenchman and, to a lesser extent Pedro, are to be used strictly in emergencies. The reasoning was understandable then but must now be revisited to finish off the season. 

Such is the slimness of the squad that all it took was the absence of Tammy Abraham to remove any semblance of attacking intent. Lampard will one day have time for his youth project but now is the moment for no-nonsense experience to be given time on the pitch. 

But to be fair, it would seem even his mentor has lost sight of what it means to be practical. José Mourinho is presiding over the greatest entertainment the league has to offer — albeit not intentionally. Tottenham Hotspur games have become viciously wild affairs, filled equally with gaffes and goals. 

So far they’re bringing in the results: only runaway Liverpool have more points since the Special One returned to London. But this is not how he wants things done. In Sunday’s Aston Villa game it took a heinously misjudged ball to claim the last-minute win, a moment that won’t always arrive in the future. 

You get the sense that Mourinho would give anything to usher in his signature “ugly win”. With Son Heung-min now joining Harry Kane on the sidelines for much of the rest of the season it’s unlikely he’ll get that luxury. Expect the Spurs pandemonium to continue, which will only add to the chaos around the Champions League tickets.

Or perhaps we forget about all these names and Sheffield United grabs one of those precious Champions League spots. Chris Wilder might not have the squads of Lampard, Solskjær and Mourinho but he does seem to have more of a coherent, long-term plan. On a battlefield where everyone seems to be banking on the ball falling their way, that might just be enough.