Yeah, so much of this season was nothing to write home about. For the vast majority of it, reds fans have had to look on in envy as the Scousers pissed home with the league title. Every week saw yet another decision going their way, a late winner, some opposition keeper dropping a clanger or teams giving up every before they had started. Our involvement in the race begun and ended after the first two weeks. Decent results, here and there, was usually followed by a game in which the team deserved to be shot with bullets of their own shit. Bournemouth, Newcastle, Watford, West Ham, Burnley and Aston Villa have all managed to take points off us. Throw in an international pandemic, and the horrible prospect of Leeds getting promoted, and most of us would have aimed to get this season/year expelled completely from history.
Weirdly enough, this could prove to be a very interesting season elsewhere. Forget the league title. It has been over since Christmas in my opinion. Best not to dwell on it. Those engaged in the relegation scrap will probably see it go down to the wire. The potential absence of Man City from European competition paves a way for one of the sides hovering down in 8th or 9th to qualify for the Europa League. And the Champions League spots are not nailed down either for anyone below Liverpool.
If we were able to see out the season undefeated or with a 100%-win record, many plaudits are available for us to achieve. Here are a few of them.
A Manchester Cup Final
Our FA Cup record in recent decades is not much to write home about. Louis Van Gaal brought home our sole win in over ten years when we beat Crystal Palace in 2016. And then he got the bin. They reached the final against Chelsea two years later but lost in an extremely flat display. This season has seen us reach the semi-finals against the pensioners, having beaten Wolves, Tranmere, Derby and Norwich along the way. They will be tough in their own right. It does allow the opportunity for the first ever meeting between us and City in the cup final.
Past iterations have seen Merseyside clubs up against one another and a number of finals involving London teams. But none involving ourselves and City. They have to play Arsenal in their semi-final who were considered the ‘easiest’ side in the draw. Only in relative terms, however. Should both sides prevail, it would be an occasion to behold. The lack of fans from either side for it would be a massive disappointment considering the numbers that would travel for it. It would be great for us to be able to see it somehow. Even better to leave Pep with just a League Cup this season.
A domestic rival clean sweep
And in relation to our opponents in the semi-final: Ole has done quite well against them so far. Better than well in fact. We have come played the West London club three times this season and come out on top in all encounters. Both league games and a league cup game at the bridge. A not too shabby record of 8 goals scored and only one conceded. An opening day blitz at Old Trafford, a stunning free kick in the cup and Bruno Fernandes demonstrating his ability early on in his career in the reverse league game. To beat them again in the FA Cup would have seen us win against them in every domestic competition. A feat we have never managed in our history before.
Chelsea will obviously strive to avoid this. Frank Lampard has built up a side which has gained praise for its blend of youth and experience. A transfer ban forced them to look towards players from the academy who were on loan. Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Reece James, Fikayo Tomori and Billy Gilmour have all made their mark this season. They have been guilty of erratic form at times. Notably since the return of campaign. Beating Manchester City but then losing to West Ham. They will do their utmost to avoid the humiliation of getting wiped by us and reach a final themselves. It would be a remarkable feather in the cap for Ole though.
Automatic Champions League qualification
As it stands, we are not going to get back into the Champions League for next season. Leicester and Chelsea occupy the key spots below Liverpool and Manchester City. It would be us and Wolves taking part in Europe’s secondary competition yet again. A blow for the prospect of attracting key talent into side and retaining some of our own. Finances would also take a hit. The situation involving Manchester City and a prospective ban from Europe cannot be taken for granted. The initial two-year exclusion might be reduced or even take the form of some other punishment. So, it is critical that we qualify on the back of our own merits. Currently there are two paths: winning the Europa League or finishing third or fourth.
The Europa League this season is crammed with sides who would be favourites in any other year. Roma and Inter, Seville, Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen and Wolves. A dead rubber second-leg still needs to be concluded against LASK but our future opponents are uncertain. It seems that the remainder of the competition will take the form of a single game shoot out for each round until the final. The destination for said final is even unknown yet. It would be fantastic to emulate the success of 2017 given the calibre left. We are two and three points behind Chelsea and Leicester in the league as it stands. Wolves are still on our heels as well. The foxes have begun to slip in recent weeks to allow us to catch up with them. A best-of-the-rest placing in third would allow us a platform to build on for next year.
Debut silverware for Ole
A trophy is not always a guarantee for a manager. Van Gaal won the FA Cup, and almost immediately got the boot. Jose Mourinho won the Charity Shield, The League Cup and The Europa League in his first campaign and was gone just over 18 months later. The longest reigning manager in our history took 4 years to bring home his debut piece of silverware. It is not always the be all and end all. Every manager worth their salt will strive to win as much as they can. Looking at you Poch. It remains one of the key benchmarks for success. And two prizes remain in contention now.
Given that we were never in the running for the league, it was always going to be about one of the cups. We managed to reach the semi-finals of the League Cup but were unfortunate to come up against a Manchester City side who were in determined mood. And our confidence was pretty low. Having a two goal deficit from the home leg made it an uphill challenge but we did at least manage to beat them away. Winning either the FA Cup/Europa League or both would be a huge boost to the squad. It would allow him gain his first piece of silverware outside of Norway. It would give some of the newer members of the squad their first trophy as a red. It would also give the team a new sense of credibility going forward.
Being difficult to beat is a key attribute of a successful team. Having a stretch of games together sets them out as having a solid base, a tight defence and a decent goalkeeper. Opponents lose their nerve when opportunities are presented to them as they are under pressure to make them count. Opposing fans are on edge as they cannot see much opportunities for them to get one over us. It also makes it easier for the strikers as they know that they can take advantage of opportunities they are afforded in the knowledge that those at the back are doing their job.
Of course, this can be somewhat misleading. Just because of the fact that you are not losing does not equate to winning a lot of games either. League winning campaigns have seen long periods without experiencing a loss. The dismal season of 04/05 saw us going 19 games without a defeat to no avail. 16/17 brought us home silverware under Jose and a massive 25 game unbeaten streak in the league. When the majority of those were mind numbing draws at home, and we failed to ever make ground on the top four, it was ultimately for nothing. Going undefeated in all competitions left would put us in a very strong position though. It could be as much as 14 matches since the loss to Burnley.
As a counterpoint to undefeated streaks, it is perhaps more important to engage on a run of wins back-to-back. It gives everyone associated with the club an immediate boost of confidence. Strikers are less likely to snatch at chances, midfielders are more liable to try something a bit more audacious and defenders seem more focused. Sides with this state of mind are able to get a win from anywhere. A late foray from one of the lads at the back, a panicked deflection into their own net, a screamer from outside the area, a move with intricate passing or penalty awarded late on. Hammerings, tight victories or ones shrouded in controversy; they all seem to get them somehow. We have been associated with in the past and now must look on as other teams clock up the wins.
From being a side who were incredibly frustrating due to their stop-start nature, we have seen victories easier to come by in recent weeks, and just before the lockdown. The lesser sides in the division have been tough for us to break down and done poorly against. Watford and Sheffield Utd arrived at Old Trafford looking to stifle us and ended up getting ripped apart. Our record at the Amex was hopeless since they got promoted. We displayed a show of counterattacking not seen in many years. The run of league games shows a couple of pitfalls along the way with many sides involved in the relegation scrap. It is imperative to take advantage of our good form to get the points on offer. Winning our remaining six games would put us into commanding position for our aims.
Of course, all of this is subject to change due to unforeseen circumstances. All the sides around us could embark on winning runs leaving us in the dust. We could experience injuries to key members of the first team at crucial points. The side could encounter a goalkeeper in superman type form on the day or a slip up occurs at the back. It all remains to be seen. We are at least challenging at the end of a season with things to work towards on many fronts. This has not been the case for many years. And a sign of growth within the club and the team. UTFR!