After a dispiriting 2-2 draw against Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester City have opened the doorway for Manchester United to snatch fourth place from them.
United have struggled this season, and in fact have been below City in the table for pretty much the entire campaign.
Now they have the ultimate chance to one-up their local rivals and leave incoming City boss Pep Guardiola having to manage in the Europa League rather than the Champions League.
With two games to go in their league season, United now have their fate in their own hands.
City only have one game to go, a difficult away trip to mid-table Swansea City, who dispatched West Ham 1-4 at the Boleyn Ground at the weekend. A win will will see them move onto 68 points, the highest they can now achieve this season.
Meanwhile United are on 63 points, now knowing that if they win their next two games (away to West Ham at the Boleyn Ground and then at home to Bournemouth) it will be the Red Devils who qualify for Champions League football next season. There’s nothing City can do about it.
But can United do it? Can they gather their nerves, stop being such colossal disappointments, and fire themselves into the big league?
On the face of it, the answer is very much yes. The momentum is with them (they sit third in the Premier League form table) and both of their opponents are safe from the threat of relegation. Neither are in the best of form either, which is a huge advantage to the Red Devils.
West Ham have won just twice in their last nine games, and although their loss to Swansea at the weekend was just their fourth home defeat of the season in all competitions, one of those was to United in the FA Cup quarter-final replay (and the last ever cup tie at the Boleyn Ground).
Now the sides face-off in the last ever game (in any competition) at the Boleyn Ground, with West Ham needing a result to stay in the hunt for European football. But a win for United would put them on 66 points, one point ahead of City with just one more game remaining against Bournemouth.
The south coast side are safe from relegation, but with five defeats in their last seven games, have been dropping down the table with alarming speed. Their only win since the start of April has been against Aston Villa and in the aforementioned seven-game stretch they scored just five goals and conceded 17.
It is unlikely that Bournemouth will offer much resistance to the Red Devils, and so the West Ham game becomes absolutely crucial. Both sides will battle to earn an advantage in a race for European football next season. For the United from Manchester, this could be a chance to oust rivals City from the Champions League before it even begins, and for the Hammers this is the perfect opportunity for revenge after their FA Cup defeat on the same ground. It also represents the perfect chance to say goodbye to their famous old ground.
United seem in a surprisingly advantageous position, with their own season- long form having been spectacularly unimpressive. Away from home the Red Devils have failed to win two consecutive games all season. Their last away win, 0-1 against Norwich, was – at times – painful to watch.
In the first game under a warm summer’s sun, stripped of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford through injury and rotation respectively, United moved as though weighed by sun stroke and shot as though blinded by sunlight. They were, frankly, insipid. Were it not for Juan Mata’s quick thinking and calm finishing to turn yet another blundering run from Wayne Rooney into a huge goal, it is doubtful they would have beaten a side as poor as Norwich.
Despite their recent good form (currently unbeaten in six games) United are not playing well, that much is clear. But come Tuesday evening, with the sun beginning to dip below the London skyline, in the fiery atmosphere of the last ever game at the Boleyn Ground, a historic close could still be in store.
Even Louis van Gaal’s pragmatic possession-obsessed style surely cannot contain it.
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