Following Thursday’s Europa League elimination by arch foes Liverpool, Manchester United’s supporters find themselves in the grip of an unfolding nightmare as Sunday’s derby trip to Manchester City approaches.
The 3-1 aggregate loss to Liverpool left the FA Cup as the only trophy United can win this season and if they lose to local rivals City at the Etihad Stadium, they will be seven points below the Champions League places with only eight games of the season remaining.
Failure to qualify for the Champions League would complete an abject season for United, prompting their under-fire manager Louis van Gaal to admit that the derby is a game that his side simply have to win.
Asked if the match was ‘do-or-die’ in terms of United’s Champions League qualification hopes, Van Gaal replied: “I think so, yes. We are now four points behind, so you have to win.
“Otherwise the gap is bigger and bigger and the matches that you have to play are not so big (many).
“I think then it is seven points and we have to play then eight matches. Then it’s very sharp to recover from that gap.
“It is still possible, but I think it’s difficult then. Because West Ham United is also in front, so it is not only City but West Ham United also.”
Blackening United’s mood yet further is the knowledge that City’s fans are rubbing their hands together in anticipation of a Champions League quarterfinal against Paris Saint-Germain after reaching the tournament’s last eight for the first time in their history.
No longer the “noisy neighbours” contemptuously dismissed by former United manager Alex Ferguson, City have emerged as a genuine force in the Sheikh Mansour era and victory for them on Sunday would strengthen the perception that they have usurped United as Manchester’s biggest team.
And yet for all City’s European exploits, they remain a bundle of contradictions in the league, having failed to record back-to-back victories since October, and know that defeat would seriously compromise their own hopes of a top-four finish.
The title seems an even more unlikely objective, with leaders Leicester City 12 points above them, having played a game more, but manager Manuel Pellegrini refuses to accept that his side’s challenge is over.
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