Manchester United wrap up another Premier League season against Cardiff City on Sunday. There’s not much to play for this weekend — with both sides resigned to disappointing fates. United lost ground to their domestic rivals and now have Thursday nights in the Europa League to look forward to in 2019/20. For Cardiff, it’s even worse. Relegation.
Neil Warnock’s side is headed back to the Championship, a bitter end to a very disheartening season. The Bluebirds shocked the football world in 2018 by winning promotion to the Premier League, but never fully coped with life back in the top flight.
And, of course, the tragic loss of Emiliano Sala overshadowed any on-pitch struggle.
Cardiff still plays hard for Warnock, but will be missing several key contributors on Sunday. Missing out: Sol Bamba, Matthew Connolly, Joe Ralls, and Callum Peterson. The status of Harry Arter and Victor Camarasa remains up in the air, but there’s little reason to risk them in this dead rubber.
“Everybody’s disappointed to suffer a relegation,” said Warnock. “I can’t really be any prouder because the lads put so much effort in.”
“We’ve just got to go again. The club’s got to go again and we want to spoil the party at Old Trafford.”
Exactly what kind of party Warnock expects at Old Trafford is unclear. No one at Manchester United seems in a particularly festive mood these days. Last weekend’s 1-1 draw at Huddersfield Town — one of the worst teams in Premier League history — eliminated the Reds from Champions League contention and plunged the club ever deeper into crisis.
United haven’t won since April 13 (an underwhelming effort against West Ham), putting them at just two victories in the last eleven matches. While Manchester City edge closer to back-to-back Premier League titles and the rest of their rivals prepare for European finals, the Reds seem further from the summit than ever.
No club of United’s size and stature belongs in the Europa League. Still, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is looking on the bright side. “You can sometimes use the Europa League as something positive, as Chelsea and Arsenal have done this year, as we did a couple of years ago when we won,” he said.
“I am an optimist by nature and I will make the most of it. The kids will get chances to play games, that’s for sure. We’ll have to make something positive out of it, no matter what.”
Back in December, United romped to a 5-1 win over Cardiff in Solskjaer’s first match as caretaker manager. Marcus Rashford scored in the third minute and the Reds never looked back. For Ole — and Rashford — that must seem a very long time ago.
None of United’s attackers — bar Juan Mata — are scoring at the moment. That opens the door for Mason Greenwood, Tahith Chong, or one of the other academy youngsters to stake a claim for next season. Big changes are ahead at all levels of the club and places should be up for grabs.
ManUtd.com spotted several of United’s hottest prospects at first-team training this week. The aforementioned Greenwood and Chong, but also James Garner, Angel Gomes, Dylan Levitt, and Arnau Puigmal. Why not give them some minutes on Sunday? Sure, United could still grab fifth place from Arsenal, but that’s relatively meaningless. The only motivation to avoid sixth is the unlikely outcome of playing a Europa League qualifier in late July.
Sunday could be the end for several United regulars. It would be a nice gesture to give Antonio Valencia one final appearance at Old Trafford before he leaves. The longtime Red deserves a send-off from the fans.
Another player seemingly on the outs is Anthony Martial. Despite a hot start under Solskjaer, Martial has fallen out of favor and might be off this summer. Unfortunately, his value has surely plummeted this season, after Ed Woodward denied Jose Mourinho’s wish to sell the 23-year-old. Many of Mourinho’s player evals don’t look quite so crazy anymore.
Romelu Lukaku missed the Huddersfield draw with a hamstring injury and might be out this weekend, as well. With his future at the club up in the air — both Rom and Ole might want out of this relationship — there’s no reason to risk him on Sunday.
If this is the end for Lukaku, it’s a little sad that many will consider him a failure. He’s scored 42 goals for the club in just two years, including setting the record for debut season goals. The Belgian might not be the answer to United’s problems, but he’s done well in a red shirt and deserves better from the support.
Manchester United should easily defeat Cardiff on Sunday, but the same could’ve been said for Huddersfield last week. Underwhelming results have become the norm of late.
This anticlimactic finish to the Premier League notwithstanding, it should be a big summer for the club. Consider: the future of Paul Pogba and David De Gea, a rumored £200 million transfer budget, maybe even a Director of Football. All of that sounds a lot more exciting than Sunday’s match. Buckle up.