All day I had carried the feeling with me: something, somehow, was going to go wrong.
It was a feeling I just could not shake nor explain – the Reds were the country’s form side, scoring goals for fun left, right and centre and had cut a swathe through every opponent bar Tottenham since the restart.
Surely the fixture against Ralph Hassenhuttl’s Southampton – a good side, but one safe from relegation and in mid-table – would not be too much of a problem. Yet I had felt that things were going TOO well, everything had been too easy, that United always make it hard for themselves and had the chance to exert pressure on the sides around them and take control of the Champions League positions.
The notion that United would simply brush aside their remaining opponents and cruise into the top four seemed too simplistic to a club defined by doing things the hard way. There was always going to be a bump in the road somewhere along the line.
Southampton have been a tough nut to crack, putting together an impressive run of form, spearheaded by the Premier League’s 19-goal second highest scoring English player Danny Ings – surely a contender for Gareth Southgate’s next England squad.
It was a feeling that only intensified when Saints made a fast start and took the lead in the twelfth minute; Paul Pogba losing the ball and Stuart Armstrong finishing the move by heading past David de Gea. Sure, United had swatted aside AFC Bournemouth after conceding the first goal and gone on to squash the Cherries, but this Saints side are not Bournemouth. They would not surrender so easily.
Even when United had done what had become the norm and turned the tie around – Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial at the double again – Saints would hang around like a bad smell. Buzzing around midfield like a swarm of bees, Southampton presented a challenge that United just could not get around – well organised, energetic, combative and hard working. Nemanja Matic got bogged down by the press and Paul Pogba was never given a second on the ball.
Those two were far from the only ones in red to have a disappointing evening; indeed only Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw – against his old club – had good games. No one else covered themselves in glory. This was a night when the Reds – brimming with intent and energy in recent weeks – seemed lethargic and leggy. Victor Lindelof did well until the last-gasp goal, but Aaron Wan-Bissaka had a second below average game in a row. The same goes for Matic who will surely be afforded a breather at Selhurst Park on Thursday. Mason Greenwood barely got into the game, superbly marshalled by an excellent left-back in Ryan Bertrand but did come in for some rough treatment, particularly from Oriol Romeu who was fortunate to escape even a booking for a late, high lunge on the United youngster.
The fact is, this was a game United should have won despite not playing well. A De Gea punch, a Harry Maguire header away or a goal-line clearance downfield, and we’d be sitting here in third place. Instead, United sit fifth, level on points with free falling Leicester and one point behind Chelsea, with Frank Lampard’s side currently occupying that position.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s decision to name an unchanged side for a fifth successive game made sense, but with the benefit of hindsight, a few tweaks to freshen things up could have made the difference. United could have a problem at left-back for the game against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park with Shaw and Brandon Williams both doubtful, but a couple of changes are needed. Scott McTominay and Diogo Dalot should both play ahead of Matic and a tired looking Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Bruno Fernandes has looked leggy too but is too important to leave out.
Solskjaer had a dilemma – there were some tired legs and subs needed to be made, but United’s squad depth just isn’t good enough and it came back to haunt us. Jan Bednarek flicked on for substitute Michael Obafemi to bundle home at the back post. Fine margins. It was a sickening sucker punch, but one that United now need to make sure does not become a knockout blow.
It was a very annoying and criminally soft goal to concede, but despite the usual over-reaction nothing has actually changed. United’s fate is still in our own hands and our mission is clear – we had to win every game before Monday night and that’s still the case.
Three wins from these last three games and United are certain to finish either third or fourth no matter what anyone else does. Two wins and a draw could be enough. We don’t have any wriggle room now or the safety net of fifth to fall back on – you can throw a blanket over the three combatants.
Where before there had been little margin for error, now there is none. A season that has been played out over almost a year is likely to be decided across 90 minutes on the final day.
Leicester still have to play Sheffield and Spurs before they host United – in a match that looks increasingly likely to be a Champions League play-off. Chelsea have Norwich, the champions and Wolves and we play Palace, Moyeseh’s boys and that final day showdown with Leicester.
On paper, I know which side’s run in I’d rather have, but we’re at that stage of the season now where every game matters and everything is on the line. United have come too far to blow this now and its squeaky bum time with three cup finals left.