Manchester United will play in the Champions League next year after one-year absence thanks to a 2-0 win at Leicester City on a nervy last day in the Premier League. Bruno Fernandes scored the all-important opening goal late on in the game from the penalty spot, capping a remarkable impact from the Portuguese in the second half of the season at Old Trafford.
Elsewhere, José Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur won the battle for 6th place, ousting Nuno Espírito Santo’s Wolverhampton Wanderers. Nuno’s men will now have to wait to discover whether they will play European football next season, with their Europa League campaign still offering the possibility of the Champions League.
Sunday’s final round of action in the Premier League saw much to be decided in terms of battles for European places as well as relegation. 3rd and 4th place were still to be secured in the chase for Champions League football, while Spurs and Wolves were locked in a battle for 6th and direct entry to the Europa League.
For United, who came into the day in 3rd, a draw away to Leicester would be enough to assure themselves of top four, with the hosts needing to win to leapfrog the Red Devils. A scrappy, tight affair ensued, with neither side creating much as the match entered the last quarter with the scoreline goalless and the outcome on a knife-edge as Leicester began to take more risks.
For former Sporting midfielder Fernandes, the afternoon had been a continuation of his dip in form, with the Portuguese looking tired and wasting possession at an uncharacteristically frequent rate. However, with twenty minutes left to play Fernandes made his mark, slipping a incisive ball through to Anthony Martial, who was fouled inside the area by Jonathan Evans and Wes Morgan. A penalty was awarded and Fernandes converted with typical assurance for his 10th goal since joining the club.
Fernandes was withdrawn with five minutes to play, ahead of substitute Jesse Lingard sealing the win after a goalkeeping error from Kasper Schmeichel. The defeat for Leicester, who were still without key man and long-term injury victim Ricardo Pereira, sends them down to 5th and a Europa spot, having spent the vast majority of the season in the top three.
MUTV spoke to Fernandes after the match and asked him how he felt to help his team back into Europe’s premier club competition. “We feel good, it's what we wanted,” he said. “We trained hard and we worked hard for this moment. We know the one thing we should achieve this season was getting into the Champions League, so we fought hard for that.
“But we are not happy enough because we know this club and these players, they can bring much more for the club. I think we have qualities enough to fight for some titles - more than one title, you know? I think we need to win some trophies and then we'll be really happy.
“Of course [I’m looking forward to it] playing Champions League is always special and I hope it can be with the supporters, that will be more special. We deserve to be in the best games, in the best European competition. Nothing against the Europa League, but everyone knows the best competition is the Champions League.”
Mourinho reflects on “crazy season” as Spurs take 6th
José Mourinho was in fine spirits after his Tottenham Hotspur overtook Wolves on the final day to clinch a Europa League place. A 1-1 draw at fellow London outfit Crystal Palace was enough for Spurs to move into 6th place on goal difference ahead of Nuno Espírito Santo's Wolves, who lost 2-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
“The season was crazy, not just since I arrived,” Mourinho said. “Since they played the Champions League final, the season has been up and down and really hard. But we managed in this group of matches to get results and to perform. Not today, today was not the best performance. But we managed in this period to play well, to get results, to be solid and put ourselves in a position on the last day to qualify for the Europa League.
“Of course from a personal point of view I’m happy because from when I arrived we would be 4th [in the table] which is good with all the problems we’ve had. I think we are probably one of the teams with the most points in this period, especially in the last six games. So I’m really happy we qualified for the Europa league and we must start next season the way we finished this one.”
Took over with Spurs in 14th place after a third of the season. Ends in 6th and direct qualification for Europe. Has to go down as a solid job so far for Mou at Tottenham. pic.twitter.com/kBZwgZhdsC— Sean Gillen 🇵🇹 (@SeanGillen9) July 26, 2020
Lack of focus costly - Nuno
For Nuno, a 7th place finish matches their final position last season, albeit Wolves managed two more points during this term. With FA Cup finalists Arsenal finishing 8th, a top seven place is not automatically enough for Wolves to qualify for Europe, as the Gunners would take the final European place if they can beat Chelsea at Wembley. Should Chelsea win the trophy, Wolves will enter the Europa League.
For the West Midlands club, however, there is still the opportunity for Champions League qualification through winning the Europa League this season. Wolves play Olympiacos in the second leg of their last-16 tie (poised at 1-1) next month ahead of the final stages being played with one-off matches in Germany.
Speaking on the defeat to Chelsea, which saw Wolves concede twice in quick succession just before half time, Nuno admitted a lack of concentration was costly for his team, which included Rui Patrício, Rúben Neves, Pedro Neto and Diogo Jota from the start and Rúben Vinagre, João Moutinho and Daniel Podence from the bench.
“We started the game well,” Nuno said. “I think until the free-kick, we were in the game, we were organised, we were playing good, but after that we lost focus.
“We started focusing on what we should not do. Our focus was on that decision [to give the free-kick] and all the team react to a bad decision of the referee and started to focus more on the referee than the moment of the game. Maybe that’s why we conceded the second goal, because we were not focused and concentrated enough on the goal of Chelsea.”
“Some days you play better, some days you do things better, some days you don’t. We respect the opponents, knowing that it’s always going to be hard. Sometimes they don’t allow you to play and sometimes you don’t do things well.
“The season is not finished yet. It’s not over for us yet. We have 10 days to prepare a game. The draw against Olympiacos is what we have to focus on. We have to play a good game, because that is important. It’s going to be very hard for us next Thursday because Olympiacos are a good team.
“This is what we have to focus on. What happens [in the FA Cup final] happens, but we should do things so we deserve it.”
By Sean Gillen