Neil Humphreys: Pool to finish fourth ahead of Arsenal
Forget Man United, battle for fourth place is between Liverpool and Arsenal
Jose Mourinho is saved only by his reputation.
Manchester United's half-paced performance in the 2-0 loss at Arsenal yesterday morning (Singapore time) ended their domestic season, for reasons that are still not clear.
United's squad size and expenditure should be more than enough to finish in the top four.
But they will fail, thanks to Mourinho's unwarranted cyncism and his unsubstantiated nonsense about a fixture pile-up (the Red Devils experienced similar fixture congestion in 2011 and still swaggered to the title and reached the Champions League final).
The statistics suggest United must be included in the race for the top four, but Mourinho's defeatism has already confirmed their place among the also-rans.
With Manchester City in form and blessed with the easiest run-in, the last spot will be fought between the other men in red - Liverpool and Arsenal.
Here's how the battle is likely to play out…
- PLAYED: 36; Points: 70
- REMAINING GAMES: West Ham (A), Middlesbrough (H)
The Reds should bow at the altar of football's gods and give thanks for their next fixture.
West Ham offer the kind of plodding opposition that Liverpool need right now for two reasons. First, it's away from home.
The Reds have collected just two points from the last nine available on home soil.
And second, the Hammers are rather rubbish.
Their victory over Totttenham last week can be largely discounted, an annual anomaly that the east London side throw up to irritate title challengers everywhere.
West Ham offer little in the way of pace or guile. That said, Liverpool's early-season gegenpressing has given way to tepid toiling.
Against Southampton on Sunday, Liverpool laboured from front to back, underlining their struggles at home.
The goals have also dried up. Juergen Klopp tried Divock Origi and Roberto Firmino and then Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana and none punched a hole through a weary Saints rearguard.
Their passing, shooting and general movement looked ponderous.
Liverpool need three points in east London to make the final game against relegation-threatened Middlesbrough a less nerve-shredding affair. Reliable form is no longer their friend.
- PLAYED: 35; Points: 65
- REMAINING GAMES: Tottenham (A), Southampton (A), Crystal Palace (H)
Mourinho has made his bed. Only it's a straitjacket.
His endless complaining about fixtures and injuries tests the patience of United's most devoted zealots.
The manager has given up on his club's behalf. Against Arsenal, the Red Devils often had nine men in their own half, despite the two-goal deficit.
At times, Juan Mata was practically a right back. At all times, Wayne Rooney was a right mess. United were tentative and slow.
Even Mourinho's whinging doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
He spoke of his need to put out a poor, inexperienced side against Arsenal.
In reality, United had 226 more EPL appearances between them and Arsenal's first XI and cost £50 million (S$91m) more to assemble.
Under Sir Alex Ferguson, United never finished outside of the top three in the EPL. Since Fergie, they've never finished in the top three.
Previously, such a stat would have eaten away at Mourinho's competitive psyche. Now, he writes off the season with three games to go to focus on the Europa League.
It's a huge gamble and perhaps an unnecessary one. Tottenham's inexplicable loss at West Ham had a whiff of last-season's late collapse.
A full-strength, committed United would at least ask probing questions at White Hart Lane.
But Mourinho is likely to issue a gagging order. He'll make his petulant point, play the kids and concede defeat.
He'll do the same at Southampton. By the time Crystal Palace come around, it'll be Europa League victory or bust.
- PLAYED: 34; Points: 63
- REMAINING GAMES: Southampton (A), Stoke (A), Sunderland (H), Everton (H)
In some ways, Arsene Wenger should thank Mourinho and his muddling. Arsenal's victory over United gave board members a glimpse of life after the emperor.
The Red Devils' decline is the greatest incentive to keep Wenger, if the drudgery served at the Emirates is a sign of things to come. No wonder Wenger was beaming.
The Gunners remain exasperating in their inconsistency, but there was a hint of attacking mischief in their play.
Alexis Sanchez might be playing for a transfer, but at least his timing is good.
Danny Welbeck also took the opportunity to evoke hazy memories of the young, quick, athletic kid once destined for international glory.
The odds are not in Arsenal's favour, but history is. Arsenal are well-versed in late charges to the top four.
A victory on Thursday morning against a Southampton side already on the beach in the Bahamas would increase Anfield's jitters.
And, if the Gunners can then see off Stoke (whose sleepwalkers are also on a distant beach), then there will be more squeaky bums around Liverpool than a competition of C-3PO lookalikes.
By the time the Reds head to West Ham on Sunday night, the gap could be down to a single point.
In all honesty, the Gunners have probably left it too late for another act of escapology.
They'll run out of games. And, sadly, Wenger will run out of excuses.
PREDICTED FINAL STANDINGS
- 1 CHELSEA
- 2 TOTTENHAM
- 3 MANCHESTER CITY
- 4 LIVERPOOL
- 5 ARSENAL
- 6 MANCHESTER UNITED