Manchester United making push to re-join Champions League
A return to the Champions League was widely regarded as the minimum requirement in Erik ten Hag’s first year in charge of Manchester United.
He will secure that if his team can pick up one point from its final two games of the season, both at home, against Chelsea on Thursday and Fulham on Sunday.
Having got to this stage, it would take a remarkable collapse to miss out on a place in the top four now and hand the final Champions League qualifying position to archrival Liverpool.
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It is a prospect United fans dare not contemplate and one Ten Hag is not considering.
“We want to win the game, play dominant football and get the job done,” the Dutch manager said Wednesday.
A return to European soccer’s elite competition is vital in Ten Hag’s mission to restore United to its former glories.
Having been a Champions League mainstay under former manager Alex Ferguson, the club has repeatedly failed to qualify for it since the Scottish great’s retirement 10 years ago.
United finished sixth last season, the fifth time over the past decade it has fallen outside of the top four.
Ten Hag’s first job was to reinstate the 20-time league champions among English soccer’s elite and a place in the top four will be confirmation of that.
Qualification to the Champions League will not only be good for United’s reputation around the world as one of soccer’s most popular clubs but also bring it much-needed revenue from prize money and commercial deals.
In prize money alone, it is estimated it would cost United around $48 million if it missed out again.
For Ten Hag, extra revenue should help to fund his recruitment plans, with a prolific striker his priority.
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The ability to offer Champions League soccer to prospective targets should also strengthen United’s hand in transfer negotiations.
Harry Kane, for instance, will not be playing in next season’s competition if he remains at Tottenham.
Reaching the Champions League would be evidence that United is moving in the right direction and Ten Hag’s influence is being felt.
United was in disarray when he was hired last year. It fired club icon Ole Gunnar Solskjaer midway through the season and replaced him with interim manager Ralf Rangnick, who also failed to turn its fortunes around.
Ten Hag has already lifted his first trophy by winning the League Cup and has also advanced to the final of the FA Cup against Manchester City on June 3.
But securing a place in the Champions League could ultimately determine the success of the season.
“We want to compete with the best and be in the Champions League,” Ten Hag said. “In the Premier League, you have to be one of the first four. That’s not easy, many are competing for it, many think they should (be in it).
“We are in a project. We want to go back and win trophies. We win one trophy, but we want more trophies, (to) compete with the best. We are still in a journey but we think we are in the right direction. It can always be better because good is not good enough.”
United’s opponent on Thursday would happily take just “good” after a shambolic season has left Chelsea in the bottom half of the table. Mauricio Pochettino is expected to be appointed its next manager and interim coach Frank Lampard hopes the club can settle down next season.
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“It’s hard in the modern world because everything’s very reactionary,” Lampard said. “If you want to go in a certain direction and you don’t get any joy for a while, people react to that. For Chelsea it has to be a longer picture than that to get us a bit more of a process. People have to stick with that along the way.”