Man Utd looked to be on course for all three points against Southampton but conceded in injury-time to lose control of the third place.
The safety net:
This was a day that started badly and ended badly for Manchester United. When they woke up on Monday morning they were fifth and in a position to qualify for next season’s Champions League, knowing a win over Southampton at home would move them up to third.
Then the safety net was removed with Manchester City winning their appeal against a two-year ban from European competition at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). That shouldn’t have mattered to United, a team in this kind of form should have been targeting four wins from four to finish the season and an excellent third-place finish.
Instead, they let a winning position slip against Saints and now find themselves back in fifth and, while their destiny is still in their own hands with a trip to Leicester City on the final day, the margin for error has gone the same way of the safety net.
It was a day of social media schadenfreude for City fans and a place probably best avoided for United in the immediate aftermath of Michael Obafemi’s equalizer to claim a 2-2 draw for Southampton.
To finish fifth now would be a disaster for United. That looked like the height of their ambition back in January but an 18-game unbeaten run has changed the level of ambition around Old Trafford and with three games to go forcing their way into the top four is an absolute must for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side.
Behind-closed-doors games are at least giving us a chance to earwig on the conversations players are having on the pitch and who the most vocal characters are.
United was quiet early on as Southampton threatened to cause a shock at Old Trafford and twice Paul Pogba was caught in possession, first for Stuart Armstrong’s goal and then again when the visitors couldn’t take advantage.
Pogba was slack in possession on both occasions and given the ferocity Southampton was pressing with he should have expected somebody to be on him. It also highlights the need for communication on the pitch. Somebody should have been screaming at Pogba to tell him the pressure was coming, especially for the goal when he was receiving the ball in a dangerous area to lose it.
Pogba may have had a call from one of his teammates. He does, after all, have a habit of holding onto the ball for too long at times, but perhaps it didn’t convey the urgency of the situation. Had Old Trafford been full it’s safe to say the shouts of ‘man on’ and the gasps of fear as Danny Ings closed in would have alerted him to the danger.
The power of goals:
Even the most successful teams are going to have spells in games and in seasons where their rhythm has vanished and the game suddenly seems a little harder than it usually is.
Yet the best antidote to that kind of malaise is a goal and teams who can conjure a goal out of nothing usually find themselves fighting for trophies come April and May.
That’s been a positive for United in recent weeks. They’ve been on a stunning scoring spree of late but a number of their goals have come out of nowhere and changed the momentum of a game. Notably when turning around a deficit against Bournemouth and when scoring twice in a first-half display at Aston Villa that didn’t warrant such a comfortable half-time lead.
They showed the trait – one that United’s most successful sides under Sir Alex Ferguson had – again last night, even if their defensive mistakes allowed Southampton back in to claim a point. United was second-best in the opening stages and with Southampton looking fresh and pressing United into submission it was threatening to be a long night.
But from nowhere United leveled through Marcus Rashford, thanks to excellent center-forward play from Anthony Martial, and then took the lead with a stunning strike from the No. 9. Having barely got going and been on the back foot suddenly United led and the game had a different feel.
United should have gone on to finish the game there and then, instead of finding themselves vulnerable to a late strike.
What’s the point of VAR?
United’s second-half task against Southampton would have been much easier had Oriel Romeu been sent off towards the end of the first-half for a nasty stamp on Mason Greenwood’s ankle.
It was a cowardly challenge from the Saints midfielder, standing on the teenager’s leg after the ball had gone, and while VAR took a look at it it was quickly decided it required no further action.
How Lee Mason came to that conclusion will have to remain a mystery. How he even failed to tell referee Chris Kavanagh to at least have a look at that incident is even more bizarre. The use of VAR has been an embarrassment to the Premier League this season and a further example of how this set of officials is probably the worst in Europe’s top five leagues. It has to change next season.
There were a few United fans who drolly took to Twitter after Leicester City’s embarrassment on the South Coast on Sunday night to suggest the script was written for the following evening, they’d seen this movie before this season and the ending hasn’t changed.
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