Firmino’s late leveller means Man United and Liverpool are still fighting for top-four finish
The last round of Saturday fixtures in the Premier League season delivered a dramatic turn of events that kept Liverpool’s narrow hopes of playing in the Champions League next term alive while also forcing bitter rivals Manchester United to wait to have their own top-four place in the Premier League secured.
Roberto Firmino’s 89th-minute equaliser against Aston Villa on his final appearance at Anfield earned a 1-1 draw for Jurgen Klopp’s side, meaning Man United’s 1-0 win in their game played simultaneously at Bournemouth was not quite enough to book Erik ten Hag’s team a spot in Europe’s top club competition for 2023-24.
Newcastle United, who play on Monday, are also left waiting to make their Champions League return. Title-chasing Manchester City and Arsenal had already sealed their own top-four places some weeks ago.
How did a dramatic day on the penultimate weekend play out for Liverpool and Manchester United? And just how critical will Champions League football, or the lack thereof, be for each clubs’ hopes for next season and beyond? ESPN writers Tom Hamilton and Mark Ogden give their thoughts on Saturday’s matches and the possible implications of the results.
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Casemiro moves United one small step closer to UCL
Casemiro’s first-half strike secured a 1-0 win for Manchester United at the Vitality Stadium and helped the club take a step closer to Champions League qualification. Liverpool’s draw with Villa means United need just one point from their final two matches to secure their top-four spot.
Casemiro was inspired for United and the best player on the field as he dictated tempo from the middle of the field, while Christian Eriksen also impressed. Bournemouth battled hard, but they were unable to get past the impressive David de Gea.
United were unchanged from their 2-0 win over Wolves with Marcus Rashford absent through illness, while Bournemouth made four changes including a start for David Brooks, his first in 598 days after recovering from stage 2 Hodgkin lymphoma.
United dominated much of the first half with their high press making life tricky for Bournemouth to build any sort of attack. Casemiro, Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes dictated play in the middle of the pitch but it took a neat ball over the top from Eriksen to open things up for United’s opener after eight minutes. His lofted through ball was helped into Casemiro’s path by a poor touch from Marcos Senesi that teed it up beautifully for Casemiro to scissor-kick home from close range.
United dominated possession, but it was Bournemouth who had the next best chance of the half as Dominic Solanke drew a smart save from De Gea — now owner of the Golden Glove award for this season. Bournemouth started the second half the brighter with De Gea forced into a close-range stop from a Brooks effort, while Solanke glanced one across United’s box but failed to find a finishing touch. United tried to bring some new impetus to the tempo of the match by bringing on Wout Weghorst and Alejandro Garnacho, and it was Fernandes who nearly doubled United’s lead in the 75th minute with an effort from just inside the box, only for Neto to make an acrobatic stop.
It was Bournemouth who finished the better of the two sides as Kieffer Moore forced De Gea into a brilliant save and Senesi hammered an effort just over the bar late on. — Hamilton
Firimino keeps Liverpool dreaming on Anfield farewell
Roberto Firmino kept Liverpool’s Champions League alive with a goal on his final Anfield appearance before leaving the club this summer, but Jurgen Klopp’s team now have only the faintest hope of a top-four finish following two costly dropped points against Aston Villa.
With a three-point gap between themselves and fourth-place Manchester United — third-place Newcastle are also three points clear, but with a vastly superior goal difference — Liverpool now need to win at Southampton on the final day and hope their rivals to lose both final games this week.
That Liverpool even salvaged a point from the clash against Unai Emery’s team was a testament to their fighting spirit following a first-half that was dominated by Villa. Ollie Watkins had missed a penalty, shooting wide after being fouled by Ibrahima Konate, before Jacob Ramsey put Villa ahead on 27 minutes. It was a deserved lead for Villa, who needed points for their own European chase.
But with Liverpool desperate to maintain the pressure on fourth-place United, Klopp’s side laid siege to the Villa goal in the second half as their manager watched from the stands because of a one-match touchline ban.
Cody Gakpo had a goal ruled out for offside by VAR following a lengthy second-half check before substitute Firmino scored from close range to equalise in the 89th minute. And with 10 minutes of stoppage time added at the end of the 90 minutes, Liverpool pummelled the Villa defence but could not find a route to goal.
Liverpool still have hope, but it is flickering and could be extinguished if Newcastle and United draw or win home games against Leicester and Chelsea, respectively, in midweek. — Ogden
How can each club qualify?
Put simply, Newcastle and Manchester United each need just one point from their final two matches to confirm a top-four finish. Liverpool, meanwhile, must win their one remaining game of the season and hope one of the two teams above them record two losses.
Matches still to play
Newcastle United: The Magpies host relegation battlers Leicester City at St James’ Park on Monday before taking on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, May 28, the final day of the season.
Manchester United: United play the last of their make-up fixtures on Thursday when Chelsea visit Old Trafford before ending their league campaign at home three days later against more West London opposition in Fulham.
Liverpool: On paper, Liverpool could hardly have asked for a better match to end the season May 28. They have a trip to Southampton, who have already been relegated and are on a run of 11 games without a win.
Who or what will be key for the clubs in their final push for Champions League qualification?
Ogden: For Liverpool, a sporting miracle. No matter how well any of their star players perform in their final game, Liverpool will need a lot to go their way to claim a top-four finish. Their hopes are now completely out of their hands. Eddie Howe’s Newcastle would have to lose against Leicester and Chelsea this week for Klopp’s side to have any chance of overhauling the Magpies. And it is a similar story with United, who close their season with two home games against Chelsea and Fulham. Liverpool simply need United to lose both games, then Liverpool must beat Southampton on the final day to sneak into fourth spot on goal difference.
Hamilton: Old Trafford. United can look to the strength of their home form, and needing just one point from two matches. Their league form has been impressive — out of their 17 home matches, they’ve won 13, drawn three and lost one. Compare this with their away form — United have won three of their 10 away matches in 2023, while their eight defeats on the road has equalled their worst-ever record in the Premier League. So it’s Old Trafford that will make the difference, and having both of their remaining matches at home is key: Chelsea on Thursday, Fulham on Sunday. The return of Raphael Varane has given them some stability at the back with his partnership alongside Victor Lindelof enough to keep a clean sheets against Wolves and Bournemouth. Though they missed Rashford against Bournemouth, he has been their most prolific man in front of goal this season with 29, and if he recovers from illness in time for their final two matches, it’ll come as a huge boost.
Michallik hails ‘game-changer’ Casemiro after winning goal
Janusz Michallik praises the impact of Casemiro after netting Manchester United’s winning goal vs. Bournemouth.
What are the ramifications for Manchester United and Liverpool if they fail to qualify for next season’s Champions League?
Hamilton: It would be a huge blow for United, a club who expect to be in the Champions League every season. As conversations continue over the future of the club’s ownership, Ten Hag has previously said he was unsure over how much money he’ll have available this summer to spend. But Champions League qualification gives them a huge boost in their ability to attract their top targets this summer, with the likes of Harry Kane and Victor Osimhen linked. It’s one of the few guarantees in a time when there’s so much uncertainty behind the scenes. Ten Hag, speaking after the defeat at Brighton at the start of May, described United being in the Champions League as “vital,” adding “we have to do it again.” His expectations are clear — qualification for Europe’s top club tournament is a non-negotiable after missing out this season.
Ogden: Missing out on the Champions League will leave a £50 million hole in Liverpool’s finances because of the loss of commercial revenue from Europe’s premier competition, so that will impact on the club’s recruitment plans. Liverpool will still look to add three or four players, but they have already ruled out a move for Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham because of the prospect of paying a transfer fee in excess of £120m. If they can recruit at the lower end of the market by signing free agents or players entering the final year of their contracts, Liverpool can survive a year out of the Champions League, but it will unquestionably hurt the club. And another downside is that rivals such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Newcastle will be able to use being in the Champions League to attract better players and potentially pull further aware from Liverpool. The only way Liverpool can make a positive from being in the Europa League is by winning it, but it’s a long, arduous road to glory in that competition.
How much more competitive do you expect the battle for the top four to be next season?
Ogden: It will pretty much be a six-team battle for three places. Manchester City are too far ahead of the pack to worry about a top-four scrap, but Man United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle and Chelsea will all be in the mix. You can even add Aston Villa to the list if the club back manager Unai Emery in the transfer market this summer, so it will certainly be an intense race for Champions League qualification. Chelsea are the team to watch. With a new manager, almost certainly Mauricio Pochettino, in place at Stamford Bridge, a squad packed with young talent should challenge for the top four. With no European distractions next season, Chelsea will have no excuses. The battle for Champions League places could be the most intense we’ve ever seen in the Premier League.
Hamilton: It’s going to be tougher than ever to secure a spot in the top four next season. Looking at the teams not in that quartet as things stand, Liverpool have endured a turbulent 2022-23 campaign and form suggests they’ll bounce back and improve next term, given they are finishing this season on a high. Tottenham will have another transitional summer but until their season fell apart, they looked nailed-on for the top four, so if they get their managerial appointment right this summer and keep Kane, they’ll be back. And Chelsea, under expected new boss Pochettino, will be a far more settled and ordered outfit than the disarray we saw this term. Add in Brighton and Aston Villa, who should improve again next season, and you’re looking at a tussle for the top four even before accounting for the current group. Manchester City and Arsenal will be there next season, while Man United — if they get their ownership situation solved — will fancy their chances and Newcastle seem to be constantly improving under Eddie Howe. It’s going to be fascinating.