Manchester United supporters might well be savouring a rare weekend in which the football can’t get in the way of their plans. The defeat to Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night was the latest reminder of how poor the season has been, and confirmation of another trophyless campaign means there is no way of twisting it into one of any success.
The only thing left to play for is a potential top-four finish, and even achieving that would be meagre consolation in a season where the target was a genuine Premier League title challenge.
A further blow is the fact United aren’t in action this weekend. The FA Cup quarter-finals will take centre stage and the three genuine elite sides managed by elite coaches in English football – Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea – are all still involved.
Had it not been for dismal finishing against Middlesbrough back in February then United might still well be in the cup competition, though there is no guarantee they would have enjoyed any success in the last-16 tie either.
Instead, supporters will be able to enjoy the rare Manchester sunshine without the prospect of United ruining the day, on a weekend in which the trio of elite clubs could all book a trip to Wembley next month and a day after all three of them confirmed their quarter-final opponents in the Champions League.
It is another reminder of how far behind the leading pack United are, with their target now to be the best of the rest rather than a credible challenger to the dominance of City and Liverpool in recent years.
A top-four finish can not be celebrated in any way by the club, even if it guarantees Champions League riches this summer, though there will certainly be some who look to use it as a silver lining on a very stormy cloud.
This weekend could well be another silver lining for those looking to clutch onto straws, despite United’s unavoidable issues, they are still very much involved in a fight for fourth-place and this weekend could shed light on whether or not any of the other contenders are actually pretenders.
For all of their improvement this season, Arsenal still remain a side that crumbles under pressure and their match with Aston Villa on Saturday lunchtime looks like a real banana skin following midweek defeat to Liverpool. Mikel Arteta’s oddly-timed rant about fixture scheduling this week also hinted at the growing pressure at the Emirates as a team which is still viewed as an underdog in any big game struggles to deal with the fresh expectations bestowed upon them by a rejuvenated fanbase.
What has made Arsenal so good this season is the way in which they have managed to deal with many midtable teams. Now they must do it again after the defeat to Liverpool if they are really to stamp their authority.
It also looks like another testing weekend for Tottenham, who face West Ham on Sunday afternoon, a match which will ensure at least one of the teams in the race will drop points. United have beaten both teams twice in the Premier League this season, a reality check of how far behind they both are when they still can’t show the consistency to beat a side in disarray as much as Ralf Rangnick’s.
There can be no denying the disappointment of this campaign, but they are a club where every achievement is amplified to give a false sense of optimism and every failure is over scrutinised to give a false sense of crisis.
The truth is that United are still probably the best of the rest, away from the three leading sides in English football, making a fourth-place finish by the end of the season neither a surprise nor an achievement.
After a midweek result which reminded United just how far away they are from the top sides in Europe, results in the Premier League this weekend could at least remind them that the other challengers are still not an immediate threat.