Just as the backdoor route to next season’s Champions League closes, Manchester United look like they may need to sneak through it after all. Michael Obafemi’s late stoppage-time equaliser earned Southampton a 2-2 draw and halted Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s four-game winning run, leaving the race to finish in the top four wide open.
On the same day that the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned Manchester City’s Champions League two-year ban – eliminating hopes that a fifth-place finish might be enough for a place in next season’s competition – United needed to capitalise on slip-ups by fellow contenders Chelsea and Leicester City.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial’s first-half goals, scored in the space of three minutes after Stuart Armstrong had given Southampton the lead, appeared as though they would be enough for Solskjaer’s side to finish a round of Premier League fixtures inside the top four positions for the first time since September.
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Yet in time added on for a clash of heads between Brandon Williams and Kyle Walker-Peters, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s visiting side levelled, with Obafemi scrambling the ball over the line from a corner. United at least know they will still finish in the top four if they win all of their remaining games, with a trip to the King Power Stadium scheduled for the final day, but this risks being a momentum-sapping setback.
For the first time since 1993, United named the same starting line-up for the fifth consecutive league game. That was not the only notable take away from the team sheets, which listed Southampton’s manager as Eddie Howe, who visited Old Trafford with Bournemouth nine days earlier. Hasenhuttl’s side resembled Howe’s in one respect, at least: taking an early lead, only to quickly fall behind.
The breakthrough was no less than Southampton deserved from an opening quarter-of-an-hour in which they refused to give United an inch of space in which to operate, even when camped deep in their own half. This unrelenting high press eventually paid off and caught out Paul Pogba, who failed to spot Danny Ings lurking over his shoulder while turning to receive David de Gea’s pass. Nathan Redmond picked up the loose ball and clipped a cross to the far post for Armstrong to finish at close range.
United’s resurgence suddenly appeared under threat from a well-organised opponent, but one aspect of their revival is an ability to take their chances when they come. Martial had already spurned one golden opportunity minutes before Armstrong’s opener, failing to convert a one-on-one with goalkeeper Alex McCarthy. He showed greater composure in the penalty area this time, taking the ball down, controlling it under mounting pressure, then slipping it left for Rashford to finish and celebrate his first goal from open play since the restart.
Three minutes later, Martial was the one celebrating. After receiving possession out on the left from Fernandes, he cut inside and drove round his marker Kyle Walker-Peters. It was the type of naivety you may expect from a player of Walker-Peters’ relative inexperience but at 23-years-old, he should have known not to allow Martial that much room on his right foot. In fairness, even then, he would not have expected the thumping strike which left McCarthy grasping at thin air.
The game had turned on its head in the space of 180 seconds and Southampton lost much of their early intensity from thereon. It only appeared again in glimpses and was not always in the right way. Oriol Romeu’s challenge on Mason Greenwood – if it can be called that – was late, recklessly so. Greenwood’s ankle was bent in half long after the ball had gone but Lee Mason – the VAR at Stockley Park – saw no reason to intervene. His review of the incident means there can be no retrospective action.
Redmond came close to drawing Southampton level in the second half – shooting wide at the very start after being afforded too much time on the edge of the box, then forcing De Gea into a fine, finger-tip reaction save with four minutes remaining. It was De Gea’s 400th United appearance and – other than Armstrong’s opening goal – he had rarely been troubled. There would be one late test, however.
Williams could not continue after a clash of heads and – as Solskjaer had used all three substitute ‘windows’ – could not be replaced either, leaving United with 10 men to defend a James Ward-Prowse corner. Jan Bednarek jumped highest and diverted the ball to the far post, which every United player bar Victor Lindelof had vacated. Obafemi – a late substitute – won his duel with the Swede, helping Bednarek’s header into an unguarded net. A frustrated Solskjaer slapped the seat in front of him, knowing that United had dropped two points which could prove to be decisive in this tightest of races.