Even in this crazy season of Leicester City’s romp to the Premier League title, the scenario facing the red and blue factions of Manchester as the final days are entered is a dizzying turnaround. Who imagined that Louis van Gaal could end on a high with a top-four place and the FA Cup at United, condemning City to welcome Pep Guardiola with a place in the Europa League?
United control their destiny and City are helpless following a 2-2 draw with Arsenal on Sunday. If Van Gaal’s side beat West Ham United on Tuesday night and Bournemouth at Old Trafford on Sunday, even a final-day victory at Swansea City will not save Manuel Pellegrini from leaving a fifth-place finish as his parting gift.
The odds against the clubs ending their campaigns this way would have been sky-high throughout, certainly when United bombed from the Champions League before Christmas, and when the club considered Van Gaal’s position on three occasions. And they would have been when City announced the acquisition of one of the world’s finest managers in Guardiola.
He nearly went after the Boxing Day defeat at Stoke City, a 1-0 loss against Southampton at Old Trafford a month later, and following the 2-1 Europa League last-16 reverse at Midtjylland, another month after that.
Guardiola’s summer move was announced on February 1st. Then United were fifth and seven points behind City, who were second and only a win from overtaking Leicester. Any view that the Catalan’s appointment being made official would cause a tailing-off seemed to be dispelled when City won 1-0 at Sunderland the next day.
From there, though, the slide has been dramatic. Up to February 1st City won 13 of 23 league games, losing five, scoring 45 goals and conceding 23, to accrue 44 points.
Post-announcing Guardiola only six of 14 league matches have been victories, there have been another five defeats, with 25 goals and 17 shipped in scraping 21 points.
Disaster is how Pellegrini describes any elite club’s failure to qualify for the Champions League. So as timing goes the draw with Arsenal was atrocious for their hopes, and perfect for United’s. Pellegrini’s side are still in the top four after their 37th game, as they have been for the previous 36. Yet going into Sunday’s 38th and final outing, City will be cast into the cold reality of fifth place should United beat West Ham.
Win the last competitive match at Upton Park and Van Gaal’s side lift themselves to 66 points, one ahead of City, who will be pushed below the perforated line that separates the cream from those staring at Europa League, at best.