Manchester United's Champions League fate in doubt after late blown lead against Southampton

Anthony Martial scored one goal and set up another for Manchester United, but it wasn't enough as the Red Devils settled for a point against Southampton. (Peter Powell/Getty Images)
Anthony Martial scored one goal and set up another for Manchester United, but it wasn't enough as the Red Devils settled for a point against Southampton. (Peter Powell/Getty Images)

Hours after Manchester United’s crosstown rivals got a Champions League lifeline, the Red Devils couldn’t find one of their own, blowing a last-minute lead and settling for a 2-2 draw on Monday against Southampton.

Heading into the match at Old Trafford, the 20-time English champs had a chance to hop over Leicester City — which lost to relegation-fighting Bournemouth on Sunday — and into fourth place in the Premier League standings with just three games left in this surreal, coronavirus-interrupted season. Instead, they remained stuck in fifth after conceding a spirit-crushing equalizer almost six minutes into second half stoppage time to Saints substitute Michael Obafemi:

The Prem’s fourth place designation took on added importance earlier Monday, after second-place Manchester City’s two-year Champions League ban was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland. Only the top four teams in England qualify for the Champions League, Europe’s top club competition.

Had the Red Devils won, they could’ve guaranteed their participation in next season’s tournament with subsequent triumphs over Crystal Palace, West Ham and Leicester. United will travel to Leicester for the final match of the season on July 26 for what could be a hugely consequential tilt.

United’s failure to secure all three points Monday was largely self-inflicted. Southampton took the early lead via an error, as home keeper David de Gea’s ill-advised outlet pass to Paul Pogba immediately put Pogba under pressure in front of his own goal. Pogba was promptly dispossessed, and seconds later de Gea was picking the ball out of his net after Stuart Armstrong’s opener.

The hosts would equalize through Marcus Rashford just eight minutes later:

Rashford’s strike momentarily restored order and stopped Southampton’s momentum flat. Sure enough, it would take less than three minutes for Anthony Martial — who set up Rashford’s goal and was generally the most dangerous player on the field all match — to put United ahead.

Martial did the heavy lifting himself, too, slaloming through a sea of Saints defenders before blasting his shot past Alex McCarthy and into the top corner of the net:

But Southampton refused to go away. The visitors for the most part stood toe-to-toe with their more decorated foes for the remainder of the match, controlling the majority of the ball and forcing several top-shelf saves out of De Gea, including a spectacular one-handed stop on Nathan Redmond with less than five minutes of regular time remaining.

In the end, though, the two goals turned out not to be enough. And it’s hard to argue that the Solskjaer and Co. deserved anything more than a point. In this match at least, they were well short of the form that had made them the best team in England since the Premier League restarted last month following a months-long hiatus because of the health crisis.

The tie snapped United’s win streak at four since it opened Project Restart with a 1-1 draw against Tottenham on June 19. It had outscored its opponents 14-1 over that span. None of that matters now. Now, United must hope it can simply keep pace with Leicester the rest of the way and make that season finale against the Foxes into a high-stakes, one-match playoff, or risk missing out on the Champions League in consecutive seasons for the first time in club history.

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