Manchester United fluffed their lines against Southampton on Monday night.
On the same day that Manchester City got their UEFA ban overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, ensuring that only a place in the top four and not the top five is good enough to qualify for the Champions League, the opportunity was there to leapfrog Chelsea and Leicester into third place.
United have been on Chelsea’s tail most of the season, but Leicester were 14 points clear of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team not that long ago and it has taken a monumental turnaround at Old Trafford over the last few months to close that gap and put themselves in the mix.
In the toughest game yet since the 2019/20 season restarted, United looked to be heading for a fifth consecutive Premier League win.
Southampton were well drilled and disciplined in their game plan and caused plenty of problems on the night. But United were still creative and goals from Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial looked to be enough for the three points, even though other chances had gone begging.
Down to 10 men following a head injury to Brandon Williams and deep into stoppage time, they couldn’t hold on and Michael Obafemi grabbed a 96th-minute equaliser.
Having been primed to go third, United finished the night where they began it, in fifth place.
To get into the top four for only the third time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, United must better Leicester’s results in the final three fixtures of the season. The last of those is against the Foxes at the King Power Stadium less than two weeks away on 26 July.
The ideal situation for United is that they don’t go into that game relying on a result to determine whether they’re playing Champions League football or not in 2020/21.
It would be hoped that Leicester, who have tough games against Sheffield United and Tottenham coming up before the final day, or Chelsea, who are facing Norwich, Liverpool and Wolves, will still drop more points that will open the door again for United before then.
But what it means is that Thursday night’s game against Crystal Palace now takes on even greater significance. United simply have to win in order to keep the pressure on. Both Leicester and Chelsea play before them, which means the gaps to each could potentially be up to three and four points respectively by the time the game at Selhurst Park kicks off at 8.15pm.
United haven’t had the easiest time against Palace over the last couple of years. They had to come from 2-0 down to win at Selhurst Park in March 2018, while the sides drew 0-0 at Old Trafford in November 2018. Palace also beat United in the reverse fixture earlier this season in August, killing what had been a promising start to the campaign from Solskjaer’s side.
Full of confidence in recent weeks, United have shown they have more than enough quality to easily see off sides they struggled against in the first half of the season – Sheffield United, Bournemouth, Aston Villa. But Southampton’s point at Old Trafford will have served as a timely reminder that the Premier League is still fiercely competitive and they must stay completely focused.
“We have learned a hard lesson. We will put it right. I trust the boys in that respect,” was Solskjaer’s verdict after the final whistle against the Saints. United fans will hope that is true.