Man United in pole position for top four, but can’t take their eyes off Liverpool

Diogo Jota not only kept Liverpool’s season alive with a 94th-minute winner in Sunday’s dramatic 4-3 victory in the Premier League against Tottenham Hotspur, his goal also put more pressure on fourth-placed Manchester United as they attempt to secure a return to the Champions League.

Even though they are seven points clear with a game in hand, United can’t take their eyes off Liverpool; if they do, they could surrender the top-four spot they’ve held for more than half the season.

In that sense, Jota’s goal against Tottenham could prove to be one of the most significant of the 2022-23 campaign. Without it, Liverpool would have lost their momentum and left United needing only two wins and a draw from their final six games to clinch a top-four finish. But the picture for both clubs has changed now.

If you look at the Premier League table today, with the season into its final month, the race for the top four seems to be all but over. Newcastle United, in third, claimed an eighth win in nine league games by fighting back from a goal down to beat bottom-club Southampton at St James’ Park — a win that put them nine points clear of fifth-placed Liverpool with five games to play.

United, meanwhile, overcame in-form Aston Villa 1-0 and steady themselves following a recent wobble that had seen them win just one of their previous five games in all competitions. (The FA Cup semifinal win over Brighton came via a penalty shootout following a 0-0 stalemate at Wembley.)

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Erik ten Hag’s team are in pole position to qualify for the Champions League and if they win their game in hand on Newcastle, they will climb to third. But the final month of the season is never quite as straightforward as casting an eye over the league table and assuming that a healthy lead or a run of comfortable fixtures makes the finishing positions a formality.

United, who have been hit hard by injuries to key players in recent weeks, such as centre-backs Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane, must summon the energy and performances to pick up nine points from their final six games if Liverpool continue to win.

Jurgen Klopp’s side are the ones in form, with four straight league wins and 15 goals. By contrast, United have struggled to score in their recent games and have managed fewer goals (14) in their last 12 outings.

The number of goals scored at the end of the season could yet come into play as a decisive factor. If United win two, draw two and lose two of their remaining six fixtures, they will end the season on 71 points. That has been enough to qualify for the Champions League in each of the past three seasons, but Liverpool can also finish on 71 points by winning their five remaining fixtures and their goal difference is vastly superior to United’s: +23 to +10 in their favour. That advantage was built up in one game … the 7-0 win against United at Anfield in March.

Looking at the remaining fixtures, it’s clear that United have a much tougher run of games, but they should still have enough to get the nine points they need. United’s next game is a trip to eighth-placed Brighton, a team looking to secure European football for the first time and one that beat United at Old Trafford on the opening day of the season. After that, the fixture list reads: West Ham (a), Wolves (h), Bournemouth (a), Chelsea (h) and Fulham (h).

Ordinarily, United would expect to collect a healthy total of points from games against sides much lower in the table, but they will need to find the physical and mental energy to get over the line. Those three home games could be the key, especially with United losing just once at Old Trafford this season and having the best defensive home record in the league.

Liverpool will push them hard. Had Jota not scored his late goal on Sunday, that final run of games would have looked much less stressful for United. But with Liverpool finishing the season with games against Fulham (h), Brentford (h), Leicester (a), Villa (h) and Southampton (a), Klopp’s players could amass all 15 points from their remaining games if they maintain their recent form.

A place in next season’s Champions League is in United’s hands, though, and they could make life so much easier for themselves by getting a result at Brighton on Thursday. Win that one and it would deliver a hammer blow to Liverpool’s hopes. But it’s never that straightforward.

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