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United need greatest ever comeback to reach top four

Nick Atkin
February 11, 2014
Man Utd's defensive deficiencies

Manchester United will have to achieve something no other club has been able to in the Premier League era if they are to qualify for the Champions League next season.

With United failing to beat Arsenal and Liverpool's victory at Fulham moving them 11 points clear of United in the table, history suggests David Moyes should start thinking about the Europa League.

No team outside the top four has clawed back a gap of more than six points after 26 games to finish inside it since the Premier League had its allocation of Champions League qualification spots extended to four by UEFA in 2001.

An awful campaign, which took another turn for the worse with last Sunday's 2-2 draw at home against Fulham and got no better with the 0-0 draw at Arsenal on Wednesday, has left United seventh in the table after 26 games.

Their cheerleaders will contend that if any team can prove the exception to the rule it's United - and they could learn something from the history books of their bitter rivals at Emirates Stadium.

The record recovery to make the top four belongs to Arsenal. In 2008-09, they came back from sixth place, and six points behind Aston Villa, to finish nine points clear of Everton in fourth.

Arsene Wenger also inspired similar revivals in 2012-13 and 2005-06, while Liverpool have pulled off the trick twice (2007-08, 2003-04) and Tottenham once (2009-10).

That means teams have fought their way into the top four after finding themselves outside it after 26 games only six times in the 12 seasons since 2001. Yet United's predicament could be so much worse.

The financial cost of failure to qualify for next season's Champions League has not been quantified but United earned £29.5 million from the competition last season.

There would also be other negative impacts such as further frustration in the transfer market with the best players reticent about joining a club outside Europe's elite.

Commercially, United appear to be solid but investors could bring pressure to bear on the Glazer family if Moyes fails to guide his team into the top four and then all bets are off.

The clawback kings

Arsenal, 2012-13

The most nail-biting of finishes in the race for the top four surely came last season, when Arsenal came from four points back after 26 games to pip Tottenham to fourth place by a single point.

Tottenham had even pulled seven points clear when they beat Arsenal 2-1 at White Hart Lane in March but back-to-back defeats to Liverpool at Anfield and Fulham at home, before draws at Everton, Wigan and Chelsea, put Arsenal back in the driving seat.

Laurent Koscielny's goal at Newcastle secured fourth place for Arsenal last season © PA Photos
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It went all the way to the last day of the season, with Spurs needing to beat Sunderland at home and see Arsenal drop points at Newcastle. Laurent Koscielny's goal at St James' Park settled the race for fourth.

Arsenal, 2005-06

Perhaps the most famous battle for fourth place came in 2005-06, again between North London rivals Arsenal and Spurs - because this time the contest would effectively be ended by a dodgy lasagne. Arsenal had been four points behind Tottenham after 26 games, and closed the gap to a single point with one fixture to go.

Martin Jol's Tottenham missed out on Champions League qualification by two points in 2006 © Getty Images
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Martin Jol's Spurs just needed to win at West Ham on the final day of the season to secure fourth place - but their preparations for the game were hit when a number of their first team came down with suspected food poisoning on the morning of the match after their stay at the Marriott Hotel in Canary Wharf. A patched-up Spurs made a disastrous start, going behind after 10 minutes to Carl Fletcher's 30-yard effort.

Jermain Defoe responded in kind to level but Yossi Benayoun netted a late winner. Coupled with Arsenal's 4-2 win against Wigan in their last ever game at Highbury, Tottenham missed out on fourth spot by two points.

Tottenham, 2009-10

There was another dramatic finish in the race for the top four in 2009-10. Tottenham were two points behind Manchester City after 26 games, and ended up beating them to fourth by three points with the bragging rights settled in a contest between the two sides at the Etihad Stadium. Peter Crouch was the man to send Harry Redknapp's Spurs through to the Champions League for the first time, striking with just eight minutes left to deny Roberto Mancini and City's wealthy owners the place at the table of European football's elite that they so badly craved, for another year at least.

Things went Spurs' way in 2010 - Peter Crouch's goal steered them to fourth place at Manchester City's expense © Getty Images
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Arsenal, 2008-09

The season before, Arsenal were six points off fourth-placed Aston Villa but ended up finishing fourth, clear of Everton by nine points as Martin O'Neill's side completely fell away.

Liverpool, 2007-08

It was a similar story in 2007-08, when fifth-placed Liverpool were three points off Everton but came back to beat them to fourth by 11 points.

Liverpool, 2003-04

Sixth-placed Liverpool were three points back of fourth-placed Newcastle at the same point, though had played one fixture less (25). Newcastle were just a point behind Liverpool with three games to go, but a 1-0 defeat at Manchester City, and draws at home to Wolves (1-1) and at Southampton (3-3) saw them lose out - and deprive the rest of us of a potentially spectacular rubber at Anfield in the final game of the season.

That match ended 1-1 - with Michael Owen scoring his last ever goal for Liverpool before his move to Real Madrid. Aston Villa had also been in the hunt, just a point behind Liverpool with two games to go, but drew 1-1 at Southampton and lost 2-0 at Manchester United on the final day, when they would have needed to win and see Liverpool lose with a swing of 13 goals.

Liverpool ended up finishing fourth by four points - an achievement hailed by manager Gerard Houllier as "magnificent". However the club's directors didn't see it the same way and promptly sacked him, with Rafa Benitez coming in as his replacement.

Nick Atkin is an assistant editor at ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter Nick Atkin

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