Manchester United, Chelsea and Leicester City would have likely – to use the expression – “bitten your hand off” to be in the position they are now in the English Premier League.
Manchester United and Chelsea grabbed the final two Champions League places at the expense of Leicester City on the final day of the English Premier League season.
Indeed few might have predicted such a scenario, given Manchester United languished for much of the first half of the season, Chelsea dealt with a transfer ban and Leicester City isn’t part of the traditional “Big six” despite its improbable title in 2016.
Only two of the three will qualify, since champion Liverpool and runner-up Manchester City have already sealed the first two berths.
Manchester United sits third on 63 points, the same as Chelsea and one more than Leicester.
And to make things even more interesting, Leicester hosts Manchester United on Sunday.
“We want to be in the Champions League and we would love to be able to do that,” Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers told reporters Friday, putting the pressure on United. “But when you are a club like Manchester United, or one of those super clubs, there is a need to be in the Champions League for many reasons.
“That is pretty clear. For us we would want to be in it. We will give everything we can. If we fall short then we have still had a really good season.”
Chelsea meanwhile have a tough-looking home game against sixth place Wolves.
Resurgence under Solskjaer
Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has hardly had a smooth time managing the club he shone for as a striker, mostly as a substitute.
Improved results immediately followed when the Norwegian replaced Jose Mourinho last season but by season’s end, his job appeared to be under threat as United dipped.
That carried over into this season and there were many who felt Solskjaer would be replaced in January after a 2-0 loss to arch-rival Liverpool was followed by a 2-0 loss at home to Burnley.
But buoyed by the arrival of Portuguese midfielder Bruno Fernandes, the Red Devils have thrived since the season restarted in June after it was halted by the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve won five and drawn three in the league to catch Leicester, which held an 11-point advantage in the middle of January.
Fernandes, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford have made for a strong attacking quartet, while World Cup winner Paul Pogba has also returned and showed flashes of brilliance. Not as rosy for Solskjaer has been the form of longtime No. 1 goalkeeper David De Gea.
Not qualifying for the Champions League would see the pressure on Solskjaer increase once again, especially since missing out could cost the club a reported 70 million pounds ($90 million).
United only needs a draw, however, to finish in the top four.
“We’ve given ourselves a good chance of the Champions League next year but we can’t go in thinking about the outcome, we’ve just got to perform at a high enough level and get a result,” said Solskjaer.
Like Solskjaer, Frank Lampard is managing the club he is most associated with. He is even more accomplished than Solskjaer as the highest scoring midfielder in Premier League history.
The money from billionaire owner Roman Abramovich was a significant factor in Chelsea winning five league titles and the Champions League in the last 15 years but the transfer ban limited Lampard’s options as he returned to Stamford Bridge after managing Derby of the second-tier Championship.
Still, he has formed a young, exciting team that has scored the joint third most goals in the Premier League, with Leicester.
There’s more talent on the way, too, since the Blues have already signed – with the transfer ban over – striker Timo Werner and winger Hakim Ziyech.
Chelsea’s open style of play, however, has seen the west London side concede 54 times, the most of any team in the top 11.
Chelsea thrashed Wolves 5-2 in September, one of just three losses for Wolves against the current top five in the league this campaign.
If Wolves win, Chelsea will still earn a spot if Manchester United beats Leicester.
Landing a top-four position and winning next weekend’s FA Cup final against Arsenal would be about the perfect season for Lampard.
Rodgers hopes to avoid repeat
In his previous stint managing in England, Rodgers guided Liverpool when the Reds capitulated in the title race in 2013/2014. He hopes to avoid another collapse this season at Leicester after joining last season following three successful years at Scotland’s Celtic.
Leicester never realistically challenged for the title this season but seemed like a certainty to finish in the top four throughout.
Yet – unlike Manchester United – the Foxes have stumbled since the June restart, winning only two of eight times in the league.
Injuries to key performers such as fullback Ben Chilwell and midfielder James Madison have hurt Rodgers, alongside a suspension to central defender Caglar Soyuncu.
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Leicester beating Manchester United would buck the trend, since Rodgers’ team hasn’t won against Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United or Chelsea in the league this season.
No matter the outcome, striker Jamie Vardy is set to win the Golden Boot, holding a two-goal lead over Southampton’s Danny Ings.