As Manchester United’s clash against West Ham stuttered into the final few minutes last week, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer stood in his technical box scratching his head.
The Norwegian was right to be wondering how to extract another high-level performance out of a team clearly suffering from fatigue.
His players’ expletive-filled outbursts had become increasingly audible in the final quarter of the game at Old Trafford, as they failed to find a winner against a resilient West Ham side that looked the more likely to score.
That sense of frustration will increase tenfold if United produces a similar performance against Leicester City on Sunday.
The season finale at King Power Stadium (11 a.m. ET, NBC) is set to be a tense and titanic affair, with a top-four finish dangling like a golden carrot in front of both sides. The Champions League spot on offer makes this “The £100 million ($ 128 million) match.”
The equation for Solskjaer’s side is simple. One point and it will be back where it believes it belongs, among Europe’s elite – something that didn’t seem remotely possible after United’s worst start to a top-flight campaign for 30 years left it 13th in the Premier League table after nine games.
Leicester needs to win to guarantee itself a place in next season’s Champions League, but United is currently unbeaten in the league since the restart.
“It is a really important game for two reasons,” football finance expert Kieran Maguire told Goal. “First of all, approximately 80 percent of the TV money for UEFA competitions goes to those clubs who qualify for the Champions League. The Europa League is the poor relation as far as European competitions are concerned.
“United had an income of £627 million ($ 800 million) when they qualified for the Champions League last season. They said before COVID-19 hit that they were expecting a drop somewhere between £50 (million) to £60 million due to lack of Champions League participation and then you can add a bit more because of the effects of the pandemic.
“There is also the clause in their Adidas contract which means that their earnings will be reduced by 25 percent should they fail to qualify, which is worth another £20 million ($ 26 million).”
The stakes are certainly high for United, and that’s just purely in terms of revenue. In reality, while an extra £100 million would undoubtedly be a boost to the balance sheets, the club’s bank accounts are still in a healthy condition, despite the pandemic.
However, missing out on the Champions League would negatively impact its summer transfer business.
While executive vice chairman Ed Woodward has already warned that it won’t be a case of “business as usual” this summer because of the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus, United finds itself in a stronger financial position than many other clubs and is expected to be active when the window opens. But it will be more difficult to land their top transfer targets without the lure of Champions League football.
Jadon Sancho, who remains one of the Red Devils’ top priorities, wants to continue competing in the world’s premier club competition. Trying to persuade the 20-year-old winger to move to Old Trafford to play in the Europa League would not be easy.
A midfielder, center back and striker are also on Solskjaer’s summer wish list and qualification would make it easier to attract the top talent the club needs to go on a title charge next season.
Of course, even if it fails to finish in the top four, United could still qualify for the Champions League by winning the Europa League.
However, this year’s final isn’t until Aug. 21, just three weeks before the start of the new Premier League season, which has been confirmed for Sept. 12. Failure to beat Leicester on Sunday would thus hold United back in its attempts to recruit players as quickly as possible.
Solskjaer is confident his team has enough in the tank to go to Leicester and get the result it’s desperately seeking but its performances in the last four games suggest it will be a tight affair, particularly as his favored starting XI are feeling the effects of a long season.
They’ve lacked penetration, pace and precision in recent weeks and, despite Leicester’s poor form since the restart (just two wins in eight matches), United knows it will have to raise its game if it is going to secure that lucrative £100 million prize.