It has been unthinkable for most of the season that Manchester United might somehow secure a place in the Champions League in 2020/21, but now that is a reality very much within grasp, especially if they win at home against Southampton on Monday night.
United haven’t been in the top four since September and by January the 2019/20 campaign had been statistically the club’s worst on record in the Premier League era. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was also statistically the worst United manager of the last 40 years and you had to go back to 1989/90, when an under pressure Alex Ferguson oversaw a 13th place finish, for a season as bad.
United were as low as 14th in the table at one point in October, with only two wins to show from their opening nine games. A shock defeat to Watford just before Christmas left them seven points off the top four pace, while a 0-0 draw against Wolves on 1 February, despite marking an improved performance on Bruno Fernandes’ debut, meant the gap to fourth place Chelsea was still six points.
At that time, third place Leicester were 14 points ahead and seemingly uncatchable.
Now with only a handful of games left to play, the chance to go third ahead of both Leicester and Chelsea is just one win away. Three points against Southampton will do it and put United firmly in the driving seat entering the final fortnight of the domestic campaign.
Of course, both teams above them have had to slip up to open the door for United, but it was also important for Solskjaer's side to make use of that opportunity and take full advantage.
The recent transformation has been remarkable. United have had a number of false dawns over the last seven years, but this one just feels different and shows little sign of slowing down in the way that all the others burned out just as quickly as they began.
The arrival of Fernandes was a catalyst for positive change, lifting the whole squad. The Portuguese midfielder has brought undoubted quality to the team, but it is the way his arrival has also brought the best out of those around him which has been most impressive.
Chelsea have generally kept winning since the Premier League season restarted, but their defensive fragilities have been exposed in defeats against West Ham and Sheffield United and they were close enough in the first place to now be within striking distance.
Leicester, meanwhile, have been struggling since December and only have three wins to show from their last 14 league games. They too will fall behind United in the event of a home victory when Southampton visit Old Trafford on Monday evening.
Conversely, United’s form has been near faultless since February. During that time, Solskjaer’s side have beaten both Chelsea and Manchester City and have taken 23 points from the last 27 on offer. Recent comfortable wins over Sheffield United, Brighton, Bournemouth and Aston Villa made United the first team in Premier League history to win four consecutive games by at least three goals.
Southampton will provide another important test for United. The Saints, just as Sheffield United, Bournemouth and Villa did, took points off from the reverse meeting earlier in the season. They faced a struggling team that lacked rhythm and fluidity that day in August, which also happened to be the game that marked the beginning of Paul Pogba’s injury problems, and capitalised.
This time, Southampton face a different beast altogether. And when it looked so improbable, United can now control their own destiny – not just for fourth place, but third. Forget any games against the rest of the Premier League’s big clubs, this is now the big one that really counts for United.