United’s hopes of top-four finish ended by relegated Huddersfield
Solskjær forced to admit club is not good enougn to compete in champions League
Isaac Mbenza of Huddersfield Town celebrates as he equalises against Manchester United at John Smith’s Stadium in Huddersfield. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Manchester United’s slender hopes of a top-four finish were ended in shambolic fashion when they surrendered an early lead to relegated Huddersfield, allowing the club marooned at the bottom of the table with 14 points to claim a wholly unexpected 15th that will alter the nature of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s summer.
Not that much has gone for the Terriers in their two-season stay in the Premier League, but at least the side that shares the early relegation record with Derby County can take pride in taking four points off Manchester United in two league meetings at the John Smith’s stadium. Huddersfield won this fixture last season, and despite a dreadful start to the game they had their chances in the second half to cause a similar shock.
In the circumstances they were delighted with a draw, however, which is more than can be said for United. Solskjær’s side were hoping to stay in contention until the final day of the season at least, but this result coupled with Chelsea’s win against Watford put a Champions League placing firmly out of reach.
United had no one to blame but themselves. They put some impressive moves together in the first half hour, mainly because they were allowed to, with Juan Mata, Paul Pogba and even Alexis Sánchez finding it easy to slice through the home defence. Yet in terms of end product the visitors were almost as ineffective as Huddersfield themselves, and only turned round in front because Jonas Lössl failed to make a routine save from Scott McTominay’s speculative shot.
It was the sort of mistake David de Gea has been making of late. Lössl was possibly unsighted as McTominay sent in a shot from the edge of a crowded area, but even so an effort of no great pace went straight through the goalkeeper to give United an early lead.
De Gea himself retained his place in the United goal, as Solskjær had promised, and though he had to wait until the 40th minute for Huddersfield to land an attempt on target when the call came he managed to keep out Karlan Grant’s shot with his legs.
Pogba headed against the bar just before the interval, and Marcus Rashford could have been sharper to react at the near post when Sánchez beat Erik Durm to a ball the defender thought was rolling dead, though United were unable to translate their clear superiority into goals and on occasions Pogba and Sánchez were downright wasteful in possession. A better team than Huddersfield might have made them pay early in the second half when Sánchez gave the ball away and Juninho Bacuna drove purposefully towards goal, but instead of returning his pass Grant blazed high over the bar.
United still felt safe enough to send on Ander Herrera for Nemanja Matic and Tahith Chong when Sánchez went down injured, only for Huddersfield to hit them with a route-one sucker punch. With everyone except Luke Shaw up for a corner, Lössl caught Mata’s cross and punted the ball downfield, where the bounce eluded the defender’s attempt to cut out the danger and allowed Isaac Mbenza to claim his first Huddersfield goal with a shot under De Gea.
The stadium erupted, Huddersfield fans having had little to cheer in recent weeks, and when a chant went round the ground reminding the visitors that they were playing a relegated side some of the United supporters joined in. If that was comedy the five minute wait for a new corner flag after Mbenza snapped one with his goal celebration was pure farce, a reminder if one were needed that United were up against opponents of Championship standard.
Pogba hit the bar again as United chased a late winner, Chong saw a shot saved and Rashford missed the target with a decent chance, though Grant brought a save from De Gea at the other end as the visitors left themselves stretched. A draw was a fair enough result on the balance of play, and there was no doubt who enjoyed it most.
“Champions League, you’re having a laugh,” was the taunt as the away section of the ground quickly emptied. Honest as ever, Solskjær was not afraid to admit it. “We haven’t been good enough,” the United manager said. “The Europa League is probably the right place for us at the moment.”