With Manchester United’s resounding win against AC Milan on Wednesday night, they put the world on notice that they are as eager for silverware as ever before.
There’s less than a quarter of the Premier League season left, but with the top three separated by just two points, it’s far from over.
Off the field, there are a number of distractions with their owners and the fans’ protests. On the field, a healthy Wayne Rooney showed tonight just how good United are when they move the ball and work hard.
With that in mind, what’s the outlook for the last few months of the season?
Champions League aspirations aside, the biggest thing that jumps out is the fact that four of United’s next seven league games come against teams currently in the top six.
They host Liverpool and Chelsea within two weeks of each other, and they then have back-to-back games against Man City and Spurs. The only fortunate news for United fans is that all of the games—with the exception of City away—are at Old Trafford.
Most of their difficult away fixtures came in the first half of the season, and it’s unlikely that trips to Bolton, Blackburn, or Sunderland will instill Sir Alex’s men with that much fear. There’s still no reason for complacency—there never is—but Rooney and Co. know they should be targeting full points from at least three of their remaining four away games.
Fulham (Home, March 14)
On paper, this should not pose a problem for United. Fulham are one of the weaker teams away from home, and only a handful of teams have been more inept in front of goal of their travels (Hull and Portsmouth are two of them).
Eleven goals in 14 games away from Craven Cottage is a recipe for disaster, but you have to look back to their 3-0 win in December to realize they are capable of an upset.
They are unbeaten in their last five league matches. They face Juventus in the last 16 of the Europa League and are just 90 minutes away from an FA Cup semifinal against Pompy.
Fulham are a mid-table club playing at the top of their game right now. There might be some tired legs on Sunday, but you know they’ll be up for a game against Manchester United—especially if they come away with something from the Stadio Olympico in Turin.
Liverpool (Home, March 21)
Defeats at Wigan and Arsenal and a draw away in the blue half of Manchester have left Liverpool on the outside looking in for the first time in years.
Liverpool snapped a five-match losing streak at Old Trafford with an emphatic 4-1 trouncing last March—and they will need to do the double over their old rivals if they want to seriously think about catching City for the fifth spot.
Rafa Benitez’s team still has a lot to play for this season, but time is slipping away. Much could depend on the availability of Benayoun and Aurelio. The former is still nursing an ankle injury from the Wigan game last week, while the latter will have a race against the clock to come back from a quad strain picked up last month. Out of the two of them, I would guess that Aurelio won’t be ready to play.
Bolton (Away, March 27)
If the teams below Bolton win their games in hand, the Lancashire club could find itself just two places and five points above the relegation zone.
United have generally had their way with the Wanderers over the years—and with just two defeats since the introduction of the Premier League, Sir Alex will feel confident taking maximum points away from the JJB.
Bolton followed up a big win at West Ham with a horror showing at Sunderland—and they may know more about which way their season is going to swing when they host fellow struggles Wigan this weekend.
United will be disappointed if they drop points to Owen Coyle’s men—but in reality, it is a game they should boss from start to finish.
Chelsea (Home, April 3)
This will be United’s biggest game of the season. With no more fixtures remaining with Arsenal, a result either way here could make or break The Reds’ chances at the title.
Pick up three points at Old Trafford, and it will do wonders for their spirits. Lose, and they could face the prospect of having to chase down Chelsea and Arsenal for the crown.
The bad news for United is that they have the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal a few days before this clash—and the second leg less than half a week after this clash.
Out of their remaining nine league fixtures, rest assured this is not the one match where they would have to think about compromising. Arsenal are facing Wolves this weekend, so they likely will rest some players without having to worry about seriously compromising their league chances.
In the past, Fergie has rested starters ahead of a big league match or European fixture. This time, he doesn’t really have the luxury of either. Pick your poison, or divide and conquer? Which would you do?
Knowing United, they’ll be going all out both times—with the result from the first leg playing a key role in determining the squad against the Blues.
Blackburn Rovers (Away, April 11)
A trip to Ewood Park will be United’s fourth game in 11 days, so this could be where they come unstuck. But Rovers, languishing in mid-table obscurity this season, have not beaten United in their last eight matches across all competitions.
Rovers’ form since the Christmas break has been hit or miss, and they’ve never really found an extended run of consistency since going unbeaten for four games in November and December, when they knocked Chelsea out of the Carling Cup on penalties and took points off Liverpool four days later.
For every promising result—3-0 against Bolton—there have been two or three disappointments—going out of both cups to Villa and getting run ragged at Stoke.
Nobody knows what game United will get at Blackburn, although they will want a victory to go into the derby the following weekend on a high. It's also a good opportunity to put some pressure on Chelsea, who are in cup action this weekend.
Manchester City (Away, April 17)
City have their targets locked on to an automatic spot in Europe next season, and there will be a massive inquiry if they fail to wrap up at least fifth spot this year.
They have Liverpool breathing down their neck—and Villa, with three games in hand over Liverpool, could also make a serious charge for the fourth spot currently occupied by Spurs.
United edged a seven-goal thriller against City in September, but Roberto Mancini’s team has won three out of their last five home games against their cross-town foes.
City have dropped point at Hull and Stoke in recent weeks, but a victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge tells them everything they need to know about their current form.
They’ll be looking for Carlos Tevez to stay hot against his former employers—and they’ll be hoping for something more in line with the 2-1 victory in the first leg of the Carling Cup rather than a repeat performance of a Michael Owen 96th-minute winner.
Spurs (Home, April 25)
Depending on Manchester United's successes in the Champions League, they may or may not have a semifinal to prepare for.
That said, as nothing is certain, we must assume that United will not have to sandwich a game against Tottenham into their schedule.
Spurs have been a revelation this season—stingy at the back and formidable up front. They have lost just one of their last six league games, and they are on a nice cup run right now following victories against Leeds and Bolton.
But the last time Spurs beat Manchester United in any competition was in 2001, when Andy Cole partnered Teddy Sheringham up front and Dennis Irwin highlighted a flat back four. The last time Spurs beat United at Old Trafford came back in 1989 in the old First Division.
Needless to say, the signs are pointing to a home win, but this isn't the same Spurs team as before. Jermaine Defoe has 22 goals, including 16 in the league, and Peter Crouch and Roman Pavlyuchenko have combined for 17 in all competitions. Robbie Keane even had nine becoming the odd man out and moving up to Scotland.
Spurs could pick up the FA Cup and finish fourth this season. The latter may depend on taking points off United in late April.
Sunderland (Away, May 1)
Sunderland should be safe this year, although they do still have to play City, Villa, and Liverpool before United's visit to the northeast.
By then, their fate will likely be sealed—probably around 14th—enough points clear of the Burnley-Wolves-Hull dogfight at the bottom of the table.
Sunderland have not been victorious against Manchester United in a decade, and their last league win came some 13 years ago.
United will need the points as much, if not more, than the Black Cats—and with Chelsea traveling to Liverpool on the same day, a victory for United on the road could prove decisive. There's no doubt that Arsene Wenger's team has the more favorable run-in, but Sir Alex should be confident of picking up six points from the last two fixtures, too.
Stoke City (Home, May 9)
Stoke, as with Sunderland, will probably have nothing to play for at this point in the season other than pride. It's been another season of uneventful happenings in the Potteries—and there's a good chance that the title race will come down to today.
Stoke have lost all three contests in the Premier League against Manchester United, and they are 0-4 against the top three this season.
Stoke will play a key role at both ends of the table in the closing weeks. As well as United, they face Chelsea, Spurs, and Villa at the top, and they also play West Ham, Hull, and Wolves in three consecutive weeks.
They will play spoiler somewhere down the line. I'm just not sure that it's going to affect the title race.