Manchester United look to be cruising to a third-place finish earlier this season, with Erik ten Hag’s men also becoming favourites to win the Europa League following their comfortable win over Barcelona in February.
At that point, United were labelled as title contenders, having narrowed the gap to leaders Arsenal to just over a handful of points with a third of the season remaining.
Things unravelled quickly, however, as serious injuries to key players would mark the start of a troublesome run for United and inevitably end their hopes of taking part in a title challenge.
Christian Eriksen was the first to be ruled out for an extended period, with Marcus Rashford, Alejandro Garnacho, Lisandro Martinez, Raphael Varane and Casemiro (suspensions) all following suit.
The players Ten Hag had relied so heavily on were dropping like flies and makeshift solutions were conjured up. As expected, United’s form faltered and the chasing pack were catching up to the Reds in the table.
Just like in a game of poker, United were all in and the player sitting at the opposite end secured his flush on the river on the most crucial hand.
In the immediate aftermath of United’s frightening flurry of injuries, the Reds went three games without scoring and dropped out for the top four for the first time since before the World Cup.
Luckily, results worked in their favour and United followed that up with three consecutive wins, putting them firmly in the driving seat once more.
Luke Shaw has been one of the players tasked with plugging one of the holes left by United’s injured stars, with the England man playing centre-back for the last month.
Speaking after the devastating 99th-minute defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion earlier this week, the 27-year-old took responsibility for conceding a late penalty despite hardly putting a foot wrong over the 90-odd minutes.
“It hurts a lot,” Shaw told Sky Sports.
“Last minute. Last action, really. I got a little nudge but of course my hand should not be there. Of course, I own up to it and take it on the chin. It cost us the game and it is tough.
“I cannot even explain why my hand is up there. I got a touch but my hand should still not be up there. But I think even before the corner, the free-kick given away just before, that was never a foul.
“I am not looking for excuses but there is no way that should have been a foul and that led to the corner. So maybe that corner should not even have happened. I can’t change that. I am not accusing the ref of anything. I own up. A silly mistake.”
With five games remaining of the season, United need nine points from 15 available to secure a return to the Champions League, having spent this season out of Europe’s fine dining table.
Luckily, United’s fate remains in their own hands and that’s exactly what Ten Hag was keen to stress in his post-match assessment of the defeat on the south coast.
“I think we have had quite a good run so far. In our last five, we had four wins and a draw. We have everything in our hands. So, we have to focus on our performance. I trust my players, so I am quite convinced about it, yeah,” Ten Hag said.