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Is the Race For Fourth Place Back On in the EPL?

“You’ll be sacked in the morning” was the chant Manchester United were roaring around Old Trafford at Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini as the Red Devils enjoyed a 4-1 lead against their cross town rivals. By the end of the match, a 4-2 win for United, the red half of Manchester sat in third place with 65 points, four points ahead of City and eight points ahead of rival Liverpool for a place in the top four.

Just a few weeks earlier, Juan Mata led a resurgent United team into Anfield to take on a Liverpool that sat just two points behind United and hadn’t lost a league game since December. Ninety minutes later United had opened a five point lead on Liverpool, and it looked like the top four was set on Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Manchester City. They would just be playing for what order they would finish.

The Manchester Derby, when United earned their 65th point of the season was on April 12th. Fast-forward now to May 5th, and United still sit at 65 points, having not scored a goal since Chris Smalling’s header in the second half against City. Meanwhile Liverpool has been charging slowly crawling back up the table and has closed the gap between the two clubs to just four points.

So the question becomes, is the race for fourth place back on? The better question, does anyone want to finish fourth?

As mentioned above, United seemed to take a strangle hold of the position and effectively killed off the race. Following  a 2-1 loss in February to Swansea that saw Robin van Persie leave injured, Wayne Rooney was moved back to striker where United won their next six in a row, playing beautiful football over the last four matches. United have since lost three straight, a streak that coincides perfectly with the loss of Michael Carrick, the anchor of United’s midfield who limped off in the Manchester Derby.

22.03.2015.  Liverpool, England. Barclays Premier League. Liverpool versus Manchester United. Manchester United midfielder Michael Carrick tries an overhead kick clearance.****NO AGENTS----NORTH AND SOUTH AMERICA SALES ONLY----NO AGENTS----NORTH AND SOUTH AMERICA SALES ONLY****

United have suffered from the loss of Carrick.

The loss of Carrick has meant Wayne Rooney has had to move around a bit and both Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao, who are both shadows of their former selves, were given a chance to lead the United attack. The result has been zero goals over the three games.

It’s crazy to think that United’s entire season could unravel over the loss of just one player in Carrick, but facts are facts and the fact is United has not been able to pick up a single point without him and their lead over Liverpool sits at four points with three games to play.

What United does have going for them is that for as bad as they’ve been, Liverpool haven’t exactly been much better. Coming into their late March match against United, Liverpool had been unbeaten in their last 13 league games, a streak that ran all the way back to December. In the calendar year of 2015 the Reds had taken 24 of a possible 30 points, more then any other Premier League club.

As I wrote after the the United-Liverpool match in March, it’s possible the United match would simply be a blip on the radar to Liverpool’s blistering form. However, it was also entirely possible that this would be the start of a late season dip in form for Liverpool, and unfortunately that’s exactly what happened.

Since the United defeat, Liverpool have picked up just seven of a possible 15 points, hardly a pace that could reasonably expect to make up an eight point gap. For a team that had everything go right for them last season except Steven Gerrard slipping and giving the title to Chelsea, the exact opposite has happened this year.

Just like at the start of the season the club has lost their top striker Daniel Sturridge, a trend that is becoming a little alarming over the course of his career. This has forced them to rely on Mario Balotelli up top, a player who fits Brendan Rodgers’ system about as well as Shaq fits into a Volkswagen Beetle. Meanwhile, last year’s breakout star Raheem Sterling decided one great season was enough to demand a massive contract raise; the only problem is his on field play hasn’t backed up his mouth.

All this has led Brendan Rodgers, the man who led Liverpool to second place in just his second season, managing to save his job. Unfortunately for him his players aren’t exactly playing like they’re trying to save it.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers gestures to stop during the UEFA Champions League group B football match between Liverpool and Basel at Anfield in Liverpool, north west England, on December 9, 2014. ****NO AGENTS----NORTH AND SOUTH AMERICA SALES ONLY----NO AGENTS----NORTH AND SOUTH AMERICA SALES ONLY****

Is Brendan Rodgers fighting for his job?

At the end of the day, United are four points ahead with three games to play. On paper, the schedule favors United going forward, who close out the season with trips to Crystal Palace and Hull, and play Arsenal at home, a fixture they have dominated over the past decade. But this race isn’t fought on paper. Can you really say the schedule favors a United team that has struggled to beat anybody away from Old Trafford, let alone a feisty Crystal Palace team that beat City at home a month ago and a Hull side that just beat Liverpool?

There’s no question United are in the driver seat going forward, and with Michael Carrick set to return this weekend against Palace, United look set to return to their winning ways. They’ll have to otherwise things could get really interesting over the last two weeks.

Hopefully United can win their final three games so I can do the blasphemous thing and root for Liverpool to also win their final three matches. After all, I need Liverpool to save Rodgers’ job so that there’s no open door for Liverpool to bring in Jurgen Klopp over the summer. That would be a disaster.

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