Manchester United: Beat Atletico Madrid and Ralf Rangnick will have a choice to make

Ralf Rangnick knows there are plenty of precedents for winning the Champions League as an interim manager

After the thrill of Cristiano Ronaldo’s spectacular hat-trick and the late win over Tottenham Hotspur, it took a while for everyone inside Old Trafford to settle down. Ralf Rangnick summed up the mood around the place well during his post-match press conference by contrasting it to the fallout from the Manchester derby.

Rangnick was asked whether, with Ronaldo in that type of form, Manchester United fans could dream of winning the Champions League.

“This is what I like about this club,” the interim manager said. “On Sunday, I almost felt like we were at a funeral, that it was already dead, like it’s the worst team I ever coached. Now after a 3-2 win against Tottenham we’re discussing our chances to win the Champions League.”

Once the dust had fully settled on Saturday’s win, though, that question suddenly felt more relevant. The three points felt huge. They briefly lifted United up to the coveted fourth place in the Premier League. But in-form Arsenal’s 2-0 triumph over Leicester City, their fifth consecutive league win, knocked United back out of those qualification spots again.

The one-point gap between fourth and fifth place is not nearly as relevant as Arsenal’s three games in hand, which put Mikel Arteta’s side firmly in control of their own destiny. While United can finish on a maximum of 77 points, Arsenal can finish on 87. Nine wins from their remaining 13 games will be enough. And that’s if United don’t slip up themselves.

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Rangnick knows there is no room for error. “We are fully aware that we should not be dropping points anymore,” he said on Monday. “Arsenal are in good shape. They won yesterday against Leicester, so for us it’s clear we have to look after ourselves and make sure that we win all the next upcoming games in the Premier League.”

Rangnick’s United recorded a 1-1 draw in Madrid in the first leg

With trips to Anfield and the Emirates on the horizon, as well as Leicester and Chelsea visiting Old Trafford, a perfect league record between now and the end of May appears a remote prospect. Even if the run-in were a little kinder, little about United’s campaign to date has suggested they can better this impressive Arsenal team down the stretch.

The race for the top four is far from over but it has an overwhelming favourite, then, and that favourite is not Rangnick’s side.

That raises the possibility that the easier path back to European football’s top table next season may be by winning the Champions League itself. United are five games away from the Paris final, six from their fourth European Cup, and do not necessarily need to win them all anyway. It all sounds so simple when you put it like that.

But maybe recent history is on Rangnick’s side. After all, there has been something of a trend in the Champions League over the past decade. It has not been uncommon for managers parachuted in mid-season to solve a club’s crisis and ultimately come away with the greatest prize on offer.

Roberto di Matteo is the first example to spring to mind but Hansi Flick was initially appointed as an interim manager before lifting Bayern Munich’s sixth European Cup two years ago. Zinedine Zidane was brought in as a firefighter at Real Madrid in 2016, albeit on a permanent basis, and went on to win three Champions League finals consecutively. Then there is the case of the reigning champions Chelsea and Thomas Tuchel.

But if Rangnick was not allowing himself to dream on Saturday evening, there was no change on Monday afternoon. “It doesn’t matter in which way we qualify for the Champions League next season. The question is what’s more realistic, and tomorrow it’s the Champions League,” he said. “We want to try everything we possibly can to win the game and hopefully be in the last eight.”

United celebrate Anthony Elanga’s first-leg equaliser in Madrid

When it was put to him that this may be the most straightforward path towards salvaging the season, United’s interim manager pointed out that there are “a few other good teams in the competition”, not least Atletico Madrid.

His side’s first-half performance at the Wanda Metropolitano three weeks ago was well below the standard required to compete in the last 16, never mind win the thing outright. The second half was not much better either until that late Anthony Elanga equaliser, which makes this tie the most finely balanced of this week’s remaining four. United cannot afford to start this second leg the way they started the first.

It is a cliché but the first goal feels crucial. “Even more so against a team like Atletico, who don’t mind the other team having the ball,” Rangnick said. One of the cardinal rules of Champions League knockout football over the last decade is that you do not give a Diego Simeone side something to protect. United got away with that last time and would be lucky to get away with it again.

Whatever reservations there were about the performance, though, Rangnick came away from Madrid pleased with the result. It was one that ever so slightly tips the scales in United’s favour, if home advantage in a second leg still counts for something. Any edge that they can get is welcome, in what is shaping up to be the most important game of this challenging season so far.

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Should United come through it and reach the quarter-finals for only the third time in the last nine seasons, Rangnick may consider recalibrating and shifting the focus slightly. It may be tempting to prioritise a five-game run at a major trophy rather than a top-four push that, even after the Tottenham win, looks difficult to complete.

Achieving either would see Rangnick deliver on United’s minimum expectation, but only one would come with a maximum reward.

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