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Manchester United-Bournemouth Preview
It has been a foregone conclusion for months, but with Sunday's shock defeat to last-place West Bromwich Albion, it is official: the race for second is on for Manchester United.
Jose Mourinho's men face a quick turnaround before their FA Cup semifinal versus Tottenham Hotspur next weekend as they travel to face Bournemouth on Wednesday.
United's stirring 3-2 victory at eternal rivals Manchester City on April 7 in which they rallied from two down at halftime was little more than delaying the inevitable and spoiling what would have been a once-in-a-lifetime chance for their noisy neighbours to set a Premier League record by clinching the title in just 32 matches.
That delay, however, lasted only one week after Manchester United (22-5-6) were indifferent offensively in a stunning 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford to the Baggies that marked just their second defeat at home to a last-place team in the Premier League era. The loss, coupled with City's victory over Spurs on Saturday, gave Pep Guardiola's team an insurmountable 16-point lead with five matches to play as Manchester City clinched their third Premier League title in seven years.
Jay Rodriguez bundled home the winner on a scramble off a corner kick in the 73rd minute, but for long portions of the match, United looked to be the same listless side with the ball that got predecessor Louis Van Gaal sacked before Mourinho took over ahead of the 2016-17 season.
Mourinho himself noted his team tried to be too fancy, telling Sky Sports, "I think we were deservedly punished because we were masters in complication. Players didn't want to or couldn't play simple. Everything was slow, everything was one more touch, one more flick, one more trick, one more turn, ball lost and no continuity or fluidity in our football.
"I don't think we deserved to lose but we gave them the opportunity to win the match by being solid in defence and smelling a chance in a set play which they did."
The good news for United is it would take a near-complete collapse in the final five league matches to not return to the Champions League next season. They are one point better than Liverpool, over whom they have a match in hand, for second and 11 points clear of fifth-place Chelsea.
United also play only one team in the top half of the table in their run-in as they host a sixth-place Arsenal side more preoccupied with trying to return to the Champions League via the Europa League, a path the Red Devils navigated last season, in a fortnight.
Mourinho was less than thrilled with midfielder Paul Pogba's performance, removing him before the hour for Anthony Martial under the guise of making sure the France international did not pick up a second yellow card. The manager also noted Pogba was also guilty of the same superfluous play of his teammates, saying his "game was complicated - like many others, always one more touch and one more turn."
Bournemouth (9-11-14) are on the verge of safety with 38 points and enter this match 11th in the table with four contests remaining. After rallying from one-goal deficits on two occasions in each of their last two matches to secure hard-earned draws, the Cherries had no such magic at Anfield on Saturday when they were outclassed 3-0 by Liverpool.
Eddie Howe's side were on the back foot for most of the first half after falling behind on Sadio Mane's goal in the seventh minute, and while Bournemouth took the fight to Liverpool in the second 45 minutes, they were done in by Mohammed Salah's landmark 40th goal in all competitions on 69 minutes and a late striker by Roberto Firmino.
"They're a tough team to play at the moment," Howe told the team's official website about the Champions League semifinalists, adding, "we struggled to live with their pace, energy and intensity. Only in the latter stages did we come into the game with the ball.
"Everything is to play for as I've said all along, we're in a relegation battle until we're safe. The players are aware and there will be no let up from our side with a massive game coming up."
Bournemouth have just one victory in their last eight league matches (1-4-3) but have been a tough out at Dean Court, taking points in eight of their last nine at home (4-4-1) in all competitions. The Cherries have scored 31 of their 41 goals at home, with 18 coming in those last nine contests.
United held out for a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford on Dec. 13, riding Romelu Lukaku's 25th-minute goal to victory. They are unbeaten in their last four versus Bournemouth (3-1-0) since a 2-1 loss at Dean Court in the first Premier League match between the teams in 2015.
Updated April 15, 2018