Seven games to go. Seven games in which Louis van Gaal could save his job and Manchester United’s season; more should the Reds beat West Ham United at Upton Park in 10 days to progress in the FA Cup. It is a little over half-a-dozen games that will define not only a season, but shape the club’s immediate future. Rant knows the outcome. Well, sort of…
Should the club make the Champions League, and be prepared to spend once more, the core of a young side could be bolstered with high-quality signings in a bid to right a badly listing ship. Should the Reds fail to make it to Europe’s premier competition, then Old Trafford becomes a relatively less attractive proposition, even with the possible arrival of José Mourinho in the summer. The Liverpoolisation of the club will be in full swing, especially if Ed Woodward supports the incongruous continuation of Van Gaal in the job.
United’s principle competition for a place in the Champions League remains Manchester City, on 54 points after 31 games, and West Ham, now on 51. City’s form has, unsurprisingly, been unpredictable since Pep Guardiola was announced as the club’s new manager from the start of next season, while the Champions League quarter-final against Paris Saint German could prove a distraction.
Elsewhere, Leicester City lie seven points clear of second-place Tottenham Hotspur, with the Foxes requiring just 12 more to claim a first ever English league title in what is already a remarkable story. Logic dictates that the Foxes should have capitulated by now, but the form of Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater has remained strong. Crucially, Claudio Ranieri is yet to suffer a major glut of injuries this season. It is now Leicester’s to lose, although there are some difficult fixtures ahead.
10 April, Premier League, Tottenham Hotspur, White Hart Lane, 4pm
Probably United’s toughest game of the run-in comes next week as Van Gaal’s in-form side (hey, it is four wins in five Premier League games) travels to title-chasing Spurs. United hasn’t won at White Hart Lane in four years and few will predict a change in that pattern, not with Van Gaal’s side so poor away from Old Trafford this season. The Dutchman is likely to continue the policy of picking two defensive midfielders, and a mix of Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial in support of Marcus Rashford. It should be an exciting attacking combination, but it is one that remains toothless – possibly because of Van Gaal’s insistence on playing three from four attacking players out of position. It could be a disappointing afternoon for travelling Reds.
Other key games over the weekend include West Ham’s fixture with Arsenal in east London, while City host West Bromwich Albion at Eastlands in what should be a winnable game. At the top of the table Leicester travels to Sunderland – a team desperately fighting relegation.
13 April, FA Cup, West Ham United, Upton Park, 7pm
Distraction or momentum? Van Gaal’s side was lucky to escape with a cup draw against the in-form Hammers at Old Trafford in a fixture about which few home supporters felt confident. Still, United will take something from that game. West Ham’s technically sound and nimble midfield failed to dominate the game against possibly the slowest engine room in the Premier League. Van Gaal’s side also offered plenty of heart to drag itself back into the match through a late goal. Still, Slaven Bilic’s side has lost just twice at Upton Park in the Premier League this season. It will be a formidable challenge for United – one that might just go all the way. West Ham 1-1 United, AET. West Ham win 4-3 on penalties.
16 April, Premier League, Aston Villa, Old Trafford, 3pm
After defeat at White Hart Lane and the demoralising penalty shoot-out loss against West Ham, Van Gaal’s side will enjoy the guaranteed pick-me-up of a home win over Aston Villa. Whatever the inconsistencies of the Dutchman’s team, there are few sides in the history of the Premier League quite as bad as this Villa outfit. With just 16 points all season, having sacked two managers and failed to invest in new players, Villa are certain to drop into the Championship. Will Eric Black’s team put on a show at Old Trafford? Unlikely. It should be an easy United win against an abject side.
Elsewhere, Chelsea host City, with the west Londoners on a strong run under temporary manager Guus Hiddink. City, with one eye on the Champions League, could well drop points on the road. Not for the first time this season. In another crucial match for Leicester, the Foxes host West Ham – a team high after beating United in the FA Cup the previous Wednesday. Leicester don’t given much away; the Hammers have been outstanding from set pieces this season. It’s all set up for an entertaining draw. Tottenham go to Stoke – no easy game, but one that the Whites have the attitude to win. Arsenal will enjoy a solid win over Crystal Palace at the Emirates.
20 April, Premier League, Crystal Palace, Old Trafford, 8pm
United hosts Crystal Palace at Old Trafford in midweek – a game carried over from week 30 of the Premier League fixture list. In the same week Arsenal should beat West Brom at the Emirates, while West Ham host tough-tackling, but ultimately safe Watford. Alan Pardew had come to be known as ‘Pardiola’ in some areas of south London – perhaps no more, with Palace suffering a nightmare close to the season. The Eagles will remain in the division, but some significant surgery is needed this summer. This is a game United should win.
1 May, Premier League, Leicester City, Old Trafford, 1.30pm
This is the weekend that Leicester could be crowned Champions, although Rant predicts that the Foxes will have to wait. Still, in addition to some midweek games over 24/25 April, the weekend of 30 April – 2 May will again prove significant at both ends of the table. United host Leicester, with the home side not likely to be offering the east Midlanders a guard of honour! Van Gaal’s side has tended to struggle against lesser opponents, with his side unable to break down obdurate defences. This is Leicester’s game in a nutshell – and the Foxes are likely to take something on the break despite copious home possession.
Elsewhere, City might just have enough to secure at win at Southampton, while West Ham face a tricky, but winnable game at West Brom. Spurs face in-form Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, where crucial points could well be dropped.
7 ,8 or 9 May, Premier League, Norwich City, Carrow Road, time tbc
This round of fixtures will be distributed across Saturday, Sunday and Monday 7,8 and 9 May, but present Van Gaal’s men with a genuine opportunity to strike a significant blow in the race for fourth place. City host Arsenal, while United travel to a Norwich City side that is fighting a relegation battle. Elsewhere, Leicester host an obdurate and inconsistent Everton side that has infrequently lost on the road this season, and Spurs play Southampton at White Hart Lane. Van Gaal’s side should win on the road; City could well drop points at home to Arsenal; as may Leicester at home.
10 May, Premier League, West Ham United, Upton Park, 7.45pm
Midweek at Upton Park for the second time inside a month. Once again United will face a huge task on what is likely to be an emotional night in east London. It will be the final game played at Upton Park before West Ham move to the Olympic Stadium the following August. That’s 112 years of Upton Park history traded for a taxpayer-subsidised leg-up three miles west.
15 May, Premier League, Bournemouth, Old Trafford, 4pm
Final day of the season and if Rant’s prediction is correct everything will be to play for at the top end of the table, although Newcastle United, Sunderland and Aston Villa will have already been relegated. These games are likely to be played at 4pm on Sunday 15 May.
United go into the final day needing a better result against Bournemouth at Old Trafford than City get away at Swansea City to qualify for the Champions League at the Blues’ expense. West Ham, just a point behind United, need both United and City to drop points, while beating Stoke City in the midlands. At the top Leicester need a point at Chelsea, or for Spurs to drop points at relegated Newcastle.
In a tense final match of Van Gaal’s two-year stint at United, the Reds sneak victory over a spirited, but ultimately limited Bournemouth side already thinking about the summer holidays. Despite taking 15 shots at goal and securing more than 70 per cent possession, Van Gaal’s side manages just three shots on target against the south coast outfit. It proves to be just enough, with Wayne Rooney scoring from the penalty spot in his last game for the club before a £25 million move to the Chinese Super League.
Over in Wales, City eek out an unconvincing win over Swansea City, while West Ham draw at Mark Hughes’ Stoke City. Leicester secure a draw at Chelsea through a last-minute Mahrez penalty – earned after a dubious foul on Vardy. Spurs beat relegated Newcastle.
Leicester become champions by just a point after securing a draw at Stamford Bridge; Spurs settle for second despite beating relegated Newcastle. Arsene Wenger retires after a 12th season without the Premier League title. Guardiola will start life as City manager with a Champions League qualifier, while Mourinho’s United will feature in the 2017/18 Europa League – a tournament that kick-started the Portuguese manager’s career. West Ham get over losing out on the Champions League by beating Watford in the FA Cup final at Wembley a week later.
Premier League predictor can be found at worldfootball.net