Tonight’s Premier League match against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park could be the game that defines Manchester United’s whole season.
The Red Devils had the chance to go third by beating Southampton at home on Monday evening, but failed to do so and looked tired and nervous.
They cannot afford to be tired and nervous again this evening.
There has been a repeating pattern over the last couple of seasons of United either failing to take advantage of slip-ups of the teams above them to get into the top four, or failing to sustain their advantage when they do get there.
It is make-or-break time and the players will certainly not lack motivation. Most have their salaries reduced by 25% when they fail to qualify so that alone should be enough to put a spring in their step.
They will also know that failure will hugely impact United’s finances in general going into next season, not just with the lost revenue from the UCL, but also from kit sponsors Adidas, whose sponsorship deal reduces by 30% if the Red Devils fail to qualify for two consecutive seasons.
Against Southampton, the pressure started to tell and United tried to hold on to their one goal lead rather than press forward and kill the game. That cost them dear. Tonight, even though it is an away fixture, they must stay on the front foot and not leave themselves in the same position again.
Solskjaer’s message to his players must be to play as if you’re a goal down with five minutes to play, even if you’re 2-0 up with an hour to play. Intensity is key. Don’t focus on what you have to lose, focus on what you have to gain.
Another reason that this should be United’s game plan tonight despite tired legs is that Leicester City’s goal difference is three better than ours. A big winning margin, therefore, could be like an extra point to the Reds and may mean the difference between going to the King Power needing a win and going there needing a draw on the last day of the season.
One of Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest gifts was the ability to instil belief and arrogance into his players – to make them feel they had a divine right to be at the top and stay at the top. Tonight, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has to prove he can do the same.
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