Manchester United fighting for fifth and possible Champions League spot, says Erik ten Hag

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Manchester United have lost 11 games in the Premier League this season

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag is refusing to give up on Champions League qualification even though his side are now 11 points adrift of fourth-placed Aston Villa with 11 games left.

New co-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe has made getting into Europe’s most glamorous competition a priority for the season.

But United’s 3-1 defeat at Manchester City means they now need Villa to slip up badly, or for the Premier League to end up with five spots in the expanded competition.

Even then, United will need fifth-placed Tottenham to fail as Ange Postecoglou’s side are six points clear, with a game in hand.

“It can be a quick turnaround,” said Ten Hag. “We have to go into another final and try and get closer to them.

“It can be an advantage that fifth spot can also be a Champions League spot, so we have to go for it and win our games.”

United’s task is not helped by the fact they have played both Villa and Tottenham twice, although the pair do face each other at Villa Park next Sunday.

‘We were close to winning’

England will get five Champions League places if the performances of Premier League teams in all three European competitions this term end with them finishing in the top two to claim one of Uefa’s ‘Performance Slots’. 

Currently Italy and Germany are in those positions, with England third, meaning United must hope old rivals City and Liverpool, among others, keep progressing and clubs from Serie A and the Bundesliga get knocked out.

However, United also need to catch Villa or Tottenham, which on this evidence is unlikely.

Although they led early through Marcus Rashford’s magnificent effort, Ten Hag’s side had 26% possession and attempted just three shots in the game. Only once, against Liverpool in April 2022 during the final weeks of Ralf Rangnick’s unhappy reign when they lost 4-0, have they had fewer since 2003.

In return, they allowed City 27 shots meaning United have now faced 444 efforts on goal this season at a rate of 16.4 per game – only West Ham (16.9), Luton (16.9) and Sheffield United (17.2) have given up more.

The defeat was United’s 11th in the Premier League, one short of their worst return, again in 2022 and also 2013-14, when David Moyes was sacked.

With new director Sir Dave Brailsford watching on, it hardly inspires confidence in Ten Hag’s tenure, even though the Dutchman thought his side did well.

“Football is not just about possession,” he said. “Of course you need the ball to score a goal but in the first 20 minutes we had more opportunities and we defended brilliantly out of possession.

“In defining moments we didn’t have it on our side because at 1-1 Rashford was in another break, and just before the 2-1 it was Garnacho in the breakthrough. But we were really close to winning or at least getting a point.”

Ten Hag in the spotlight

Erik ten Hag has lost four of his five meetings with Manchester City since taking charge of Manchester United in 2022

As with the home defeat by Fulham eight days earlier, when he claimed United were the better side, many will take a different view to Ten Hag.

They may also reject Ten Hag’s theory his side should have been given a free-kick for a foul on Rashford by Kyle Walker in the moments before the counter-attack that led to Foden’s equaliser.

“It was very soft but when you are in a full-speed run and you get a little touch, then you are out of control,” he said.

The brutal truth for Ten Hag is that Brailsford, Ratcliffe and, possibly, Dan Ashworth – depending on when United can strike a deal with Newcastle for their sporting director to begin work – will decide his fate.

Former United skipper Gary Neville repeated on Sky Sports the decision may have already been reached.

With home matches against Liverpool in league and FA Cup, plus a trip to Chelsea to navigate in the next month and struggling Everton due at Old Trafford on Saturday, even if it hasn’t, the conclusions may not be far away.

Ten Hag though, continues to talk up his side.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said, when asked whether the game was a reminder of the gulf between United and City. “Absolutely not.

“You can see we have many problems in injuries and still we had an opportunity. It’s not that big and when we have everyone on board we can be competitive.

“But City, is in this moment, the best team in the world. Don’t forget this.”

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