Will Manchester United Make the Top Four?
Just 11 matches of the domestic campaign remain for José Mourinho and his Manchester United players to achieve their pre-season goal of a top-four finish and a place in the qualifying rounds of next season's Champions League.
Ah, but they don't need to finish in the top four to qualify for the Champions League you say. This is very true. They could win the Europa League trophy in Stockholm in May and with it achieve that all important invitation to next season's top table of European football in the process.
But Mourinho will be reticent to give up on achieving Champions League football via the now traditional means of a top-four finish despite facing a fixture pile-up caused by their League Cup final success against Southampton in February and their progression to the quarter-finals of the Europa League.
Mourinho As Demanding As Ever
United have been pitted against Belgian giants Anderlecht in the last eight of European club football's second most important competition. However, despite the congestion that United's success has inflicted upon the world's richest club, Mourinho's desire to win every match in which he manages is such that he will demand nothing less than a concerted effort from his men to achieve a place in the top four as well as a second trophy to add to his impressive résumé.
The latter granted is a much more likely occurrence with BetVictor among others currently placing United as firm favourites at 5/4 to emulate Sevilla in becoming only the second team to be elevated by UEFA to the Champions League as a prize for winning the Europa League.
Meanwhile in the latest Premier League betting markets, the bookmakers Bet365 and Ladbrokes are now quoting United as short as 13/8 to achieve Mourinho's minimum target of a top-four finish. However, to do so they face an uphill battle with tough away trips still to come against fellow challengers Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City, in addition to a tough home clash with Champions-elect Chelsea.
United currently occupy fifth position in the league table having extended their undefeated run to 18 matches in Sunday's 3-1 away victory at Middlesbrough. They trail Liverpool in fourth by four points but possess two games in hand over their north-west rivals while Arsenal, under the guidance of the increasingly beleaguered Arsène Wenger, are two points further adrift and look likely to miss out on a top-four finish for the first time since the Frenchman's arrival back in 1996.
Top Four A Tall Order For United
To many observers and pundits alike, a top-four finish still looks a tall order for United especially given the injury problems that have beset their forward line in recent weeks. Yet even if they do succeed in finishing in the top four, such an achievement could be usurped by Leicester City continuing to defy the odds and winning this year's Champions League. Although highly unlikely given the presence of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich and quarter-final opponents Atlético Madrid in the last eight, if Leicester do achieve another miracle to follow last year's shock title success, the Premier League's fourth-placed team would miss out on next season's Champions League just as Spurs did back in 2012 now that UEFA limit the number of competing teams from one country to a maximum of five.
Hence, the Europa League may well present United's best opportunity of qualifying for the lucrative Champions League and the opportunity to attract more of world football's best talent to 'The Theatre of Dreams.' Just don't tell José to concentrate on one competition. But then he probably wouldn't listen anyway!
Chris qualified from the University of Brighton in 2007 with a degree in Sports Journalism and is a sports fanatic, spending pretty much all his money following the Welsh football team all over Europe (and yes spending five weeks on tour with Wales in France at Euro 2016). He has written for numerous websites and has two fully published football biographies to his name. Chris also enjoys rugby union, cycling and darts and enjoys a regular (okaydaily!) punt on football.