The time has come for Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United side to sink or swim and there is little to suggest that they will stay afloat.
Put simply, you cannot end almost two years of mediocrity with the flick of a switch.
Amid a difficult fixture list, Van Gaal has deep-rooted problems to address. So far he has made no significant progress on David Moyes’ time in charge.
In fact, United have just one more victory than at the same stage last season yet they have been in the top four since beating Arsenal 2-1 at the Emirates in late November.
Now they face an almighty battle to stay there: Van Gaal have been dealt a difficult hand in the Champions League ‘rat race’ – his side face five of the current top seven in their final 10 games.
Although United, who lie fourth, have taken 16 points in their last seven games, Liverpool have closed the gap to just two points and Tottenham are just a point further back.
Spurs visit Old Trafford on Sunday before Van Gaal’s side travel to Anfield on March 22 in two games that could make or break United’s season.
There is an uncharacteristic aura of uncertainty around the club – the points total is healthy enough, so far, but performances have been sub-par and disappointment seems to lurk round every corner.
Newcastle’s Tim Krul gifted United the points in the final minute last time out, and their previous four victories came against four of the league’s bottom five teams.
Chelsea and Manchester City are set to take the top two positions meaning there are just two Champions League spots up for grabs.
With ten games to go, five points separate five teams from Arsenal in third to Southampton in seventh and the signs are not good for United.
Over the past ten matches United have picked up 18 points, one more than Southampton but eight fewer than a resurgent Liverpool who earned 26.
In the same period, Spurs gained two points on the 13-time Premier League champions and Arsenal have earned 24 points.
They now face their most challenging run of the season and there are serious doubts about whether Van Gaal’s side will be able to cope.
Liverpool and Spurs both face six away fixtures during the run-in but, crucially, they only face three of the top seven.
Arsene Wenger’s side also face just three of the top seven in their remaining games, but have the distraction of maintaining two cup runs on top of this.
Despite Ronald Koeman’s magnificent first season, Southampton’s challenge seems to be fading due to their recent goal drought.
This means that United’s Champions League fate will probably be decided by games with their three closest rivals.
Their fate is in their own hands and they will be buoyed by the fact that they have taken seven points from matches with Spurs, Liverpool and Arsenal this season.
However, on current form United will struggle to repeat the feat against the victories they recorded over a rejuvenated Liverpool side and Arsenal, who won at Old Trafford last Monday.
Arsenal dominated United’s trip to the Emirates and only poor finishing allowed Van Gaal’s side the chance to leave with three points.
Liverpool, who left Old Trafford on the end of a 3-0 defeat, also felt hard done by after creating most of the best chances.
David De Gea, as has happened so often this season, was the hero that day and he will have to be on his best form at Anfield if his side have any hope of avoiding defeat.
Since their last meeting Liverpool are unbeaten in the league, have dropped just six points and jumped from 11th to fifth.
Brendan Rodger’s side have hit top form at the right time, while United have consistently stumbled over the line.
Spurs will also feel they have a great opportunity to record a third straight league victory at the Theatre of Dreams.
Harry Kane has been in inspired form and, despite their Capital Cup final defeat to Chelsea, his side have developed an inner-strength that seems missing from Van Gaal’s misfiring squad.
Over thirty games into his reign the Dutchman is still playing around with systems and personnel, while none of his summer signings have been entirely convincing.
For a long time people have been waiting for United’s luck to run out, for poor results start to arrive alongside their poor performances.
One thing is certain. Spurs, Liverpool and Arsenal will not be as forgiving as United’s recent opposition: If United are to hold on to fourth they will, at long last, have to produce performances that warrant it.
Main image courtesy of BBC via YouTube, with thanks.