With just two Premier League games to go, Manchester United’s destiny is firmly in their own hands.
Following Saturday’s 1-0 win over Bournemouth, the Reds require just one point from their last two matches to secure a top four berth and clinch Champions League qualification for next season. Liverpool dropped points at home to Aston Villa, drawing 1-1, meaning United are now on the brink of achieving their main pre-season objective.
But although the job is almost done, you can guarantee that manager Erik ten Hag will take nothing for granted against either Chelsea on Thursday night or against Fulham on Sunday. Both London clubs will visit Old Trafford in the Reds’ final two matches.
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Furthermore, both games will represent auditions to make Ten Hag’s starting line-up for the FA Cup final against Manchester City at Wembley on June 3. As well as being on the hunt for their second trophy of the season that afternoon, the Reds will also be aiming to stop their cross-city rivals from maintaining their hopes of clinching a famous treble.
United have faced City twice this season and have lost to them and beaten them. They were blitzed by an inspired performance led by Erling Haaland back in October, losing 6-3 at the Etihad Stadium, before strategically beating them 2-1 at Old Trafford with a measured and professional showing in January.
As is often the nature with cup finals, it is a rarity for one team to outscore the other by a bucket load of goals; they have a tendency to be settled by the odd goal most of the time. City, of course, are playing with a real swagger at this moment in time, frequently putting the opposition to the sword, whereas United are limping towards the finish line and struggling to score.
But on a one-off occasion, form and everything else that comes with it does tend to go out the window. United will fancy their chances.
The majority of Ten Hag’s starting line-up against City, provided United do not suffer any further injury or illness-related setbacks between now and a-week-on-Saturday, should pick itself. The only positions that are likely to be up for debate are the right-back and left-midfield berths.
Looking at the top end of the pitch, presuming Marcus Rashford has recovered from his illness and is fully fit, you would expect him to start on the left and Anthony Martial to play through the middle. That was what happened the last time United faced City up until Martial was withdrawn at half-time and replaced by Antony.
The elephant in the room, though, is Alejandro Garnacho. He has made two substitute appearances since returning from a lengthy spell on the sidelines with an ankle injury and you would imagine that he will start at least one of the last two Premier League games ahead of the FA Cup final.
Garnacho, who scored against Wolves just over a week ago, is a flair player that gets the crowd out of the seats in anticipation of what might happen when he gets on the ball. As lucrative and as exciting as he is to watch, he could be the wrong type of player to start against City, such is the way United are likely to require their attackers to be patient and almost certainly track back to support the defenders.
Garnacho is still young and learning on the job, meaning he could be best utilised against Pep Guardiola’s side as an impact player, should he still be needed at the juncture United tend to turn to him in matches. Ten Hag, arguably, said as much after the win over Wolves.
The United boss said: “He is showing when you score some winners – Fulham – the assist against City and now the second goal [vs Wolves], he is showing some things. Also sometimes he lacks defensive transition and pressing. He has to step up, when you are going into an action or keep the ball, so decisions. But when you see all over he is a huge talent and he is brave.
“Decisions, making decisions, scanning situations, when to go into one-on-ones, get behind, when to go for goal, when to give the extra pass or when to give the assist rather than to go for own success. Decisions like that make a good player a top player, that is the difference.”
Given the clash with City is likely to be a tactical contest, where one mistake could have huge consequences, Ten Hag must be mindful of the risk that would come with starting Garnacho. While there is no denying his ability to influence a game, it feels as though he would be better off starting on the bench.
His time will come to be regular starter, there is no doubt about that. However, patience will be key for both him and the United fans desperate to watch him.