Fernandes fires Manchester United toward the Champions League

AP , Monday 1 May 2023

There were protests at the start but celebrations at the end as Manchester United edged toward a return to the Champions League on Sunday.

Manchester United s Portuguese midfielder Bruno Fernandes (L) shoots and scores his team first goal during the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and Aston Villa at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west England, on April 30, 2023. AFP


A 1-0 win against Aston Villa strengthened United's hold on a top-four place in the Premier League, which was the primary target for manager Erik ten Hag in his first season in charge.

Bruno Fernandes scored a 39th minute winner when turning in the rebound after Emiliano Martinez had pushed away a shot from Marcus Rashford.

With third-place Newcastle beating Southampton 3-1, United remains two points behind in fourth, with a game in hand.

“You have to wait until it’s done, we have to keep going from game to game, but this is a brilliant week for us,” said Ten Hag, who has already ended the club's six-year trophy drought — with the League Cup — and secured a place in the FA Cup final against Manchester City in June.

While supporters could hardly have asked for more from the Dutchman on the field, they remain determined to force change off it.

Fans staged a latest protest against owners, the Glazer family, ahead of the game, demanding the Americans agree to a complete sale of the club.

The demonstration came two days after a third round of bidding for United, which saw Qatari banker Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani and British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe submit latest offers for the 20-time English champion.

Fans are growing increasingly concerned the Glazers will retain a majority or minority stake in the club, despite raising the prospect of a sale as part of a strategic review being overseen by merchant bank Raine Group. Supporters held up a huge banner outside Old Trafford that read “Full Sale Only,” while there were chants of “We want Glazers out” inside the stadium.

That unrest off the field did not impact United's performance on it, as Ten Hag's team withstood a late fightback from Villa.

Loud cheers rang around Old Trafford as the final whistle blew, underlining the importance of the win that leaves United seven points ahead of fifth-place Liverpool with a game in hand.

Ten Hag gestured in celebration toward the fans at the end of the match. Before heading to the locker room, he picked up a green-and-gold scarf — which has been used as a symbol of fans' protests against the Glazers — thrown in his direction, with the footage later shared on social media.

“We really felt that the fans were behind us, so we have to focus to be successful because that is what the fans expect,” said Ten Hag. "They have to rely on us so we will focus on that.

"I’m sure when we give performances like we do all season, the fans are behind us and there is a lot of energy. There’s a really strong bond between the fans and the players.”

The win kept Ten Hag on course for a top-four finish and a return to the Champions League after United missed out on a place in European soccer’s elite competition last season.

Villa had sparked hopes of a top-four push itself after a run of 10 games unbeaten before Sunday.

Unai Emery’s team threatened to extend that run by mounting a late charge, which saw Victor Lindelof clear off the line from Douglas Luiz in the last 10 minutes.

“I’m really happy with the points but also with the performance,” Ten Hag said. “Really good performance against a Villa side who did not lose in 10 games, scored in every game and we were in complete control. It could have been 3-1 or 4-1 so a really good and impressive performance.”

Fernandes' goal was his 11th of the season and came after United saw earlier chances go by, with Rashford denied by Martinez and Casemiro hitting the bar.

Ten Hag said Fernandes' latest contribution justified his role as captain.

“He’s so tough. A couple of weeks ago there were questions about his captaincy,” the United manager said. “It’s crazy because he’s such a big leader, by example. He gives so much energy to the team besides his smartness.

“We need such players if you want to win games, if you want to win trophies.”

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