Manchester United and Chelsea’s chances of a top four Premier League finish will depend largely on Paul Pogba or Eden Hazard inspiring their faltering sides over the finish line.
French midfielder Pogba and Belgian captain Hazard will line up on opposite sides on Sunday as United try to arrest a run of seven defeats in nine games.
Fourth-place Chelsea, three points ahead of United in sixth, can realistically end the Red Devils’ chances of Champions League football next season but must end their own run of seven straight away league defeats to top six opposition to do so.
However, whether Pogba and Hazard will be around next season no matter their clubs’ fate in the next three games is very much in doubt.
The two could be teammates next season with speculation linking both with a move to Real Madrid. Both have voiced their appreciation for Real boss Zinedine Zidane and publicly flirted with the idea of a move to the Spanish giants.
Eleven years on from contesting the Champions League final, the prospect of losing their landmark talent is a sign of the times for both clubs.
Defeat to Manchester City in midweek saw United fall 25 points behind the league leaders.
“That’s the reality that we are in. We are now round about where we have been the last five seasons and that’s not good enough,” said United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Friday.
– Patience with Pogba running low –
Pogba was the only player not from City or title challengers Liverpool to make the PFA team of the year this week, but for such a precocious talent and a world cup winner much more is demanded.
His last goal from open play came the last time United and Chelsea met in the FA Cup back in February. After exploding into life early in Solskjaer’s caretaker reign, Pogba has returned to the peripheral force he was for much of Jose Mourinho’s time in charge at Old Trafford.
However, it is emblematic of the huge challenge that lies ahead of Solskjaer that the players he is keen to keep hold of such as Pogba and David de Gea are running down their contracts, opening up the possibility of a move.
Meanwhile, plenty of players in United’s bloated squad cannot be moved on due to their lavish wages.
“Paul has done fantastic for us,” insisted Solskjaer.
“The standards he has set when he is creating chances, scoring goals, doing loads of work, that’s just media, supporters, everyone, we look to Paul. Could you have done better?
“He’s a human being as well, we are all the same. We want him to do well, he’s a leader in that dressing room and on the pitch for us.”
Many in Manchester, though, would not be heartbroken to lose Pogba should United recoup the then world record £89 million they paid Juventus for him in 2016.
By contrast, losing Hazard could be ruinous for Chelsea and unfortunately for the Londoners, of the two, he looks more likely to move to Madrid.
Hazard has just one year left on his contract meaning Chelsea risk losing him for free if they do not let him leave this summer and will be unable to recruit a replacement unless they can get a FIFA transfer ban either overturned or suspended.
Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri has repeatedly called for more from Hazard, but his 19 goals and 13 assists are what have kept a side short on creativity still in the running for Champions League football next season, either via the top four or winning the Europa League.
In the prime of their careers, Pogba and Hazard believe the Champions League stage is where they belong.
But the current states of United and Chelsea mean that while moving to Madrid offers a guarantee of top-level European football, sticking around in Manchester of west London does not.