MANCHESTER – It has not always gone smoothly for Erik ten Hag in his first year in charge at Manchester United.
There is still much work to be done if the 20-time league champion is to be restored to its former glories.
But on Thursday night, in front of a packed Old Trafford, Ten Hag achieved what he called his “main objective” of securing a return to the Champions League with a 4-1 win against Chelsea.
“It is a successful season but the season is not finished,” he said. "This club belongs in the Champions League so you have to qualify in the first four. We played a good season in the Premier League. I think a very good season.”
Goals from Casemiro, Anthony Martial, Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford fired United to a victory that means a top-four finish is now certain. United moved up to third and two points above Newcastle going into the season finale.
It could get better still for Ten Hag, who has already lifted his first trophy — the League Cup in February. United faces Manchester City in the FA Cup final on June 3 at Wembley.
While silverware adds sparkle to an encouraging debut season under the Dutch coach, qualification for the Champions League has been the ultimate measure by which his predecessors have been judged during a turbulent 10 years since iconic former manager Alex Ferguson retired.
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal were fired after failing to qualify for European soccer’s elite competition.
Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer departed when the team's form meant qualification was in serious doubt.
Ten Hag was hired last year to turn United’s fortunes around, and while he has had his difficulties in an eventful first year in English soccer, he has done just that.
Needing just a point from its last two games of the season, first half goals from Casemiro and Martial put United on course for the win against Chelsea that ensured there would be no late slip up to let in archrival Liverpool.
United's win assures Liverpool will finish fifth with a Europa League spot, which Mohamed Salah said is not good enough. The Liverpool forward tweeted that he's “ devastated.”
The jubilant scenes at Old Trafford were a world away significant setbacks — a 6-3 loss to Manchester City and a humiliating 7-0 rout by Liverpool as recently as March.
Ten Hag had to cope the disruption caused by Cristiano Ronaldo, who publicly criticized the club ahead of his acrimonious departure in November, as well as injuries to key players like Martial, Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martinez.
Through it all, the former Ajax coach has remained focused on the target of top four and his long-term vision of rebuilding a club that has been in decline since Ferguson's departure.
And Ten Hag took the opportunity to remind United that it is still some way from challenging City's Premier League dominance after Pep Guardiola's team won a fifth title in six years this season.
He wants backing in the transfer market in the summer when a top striker will be his priority.
“It’s a good base to build on, but the standards have to go up, the demands have to rise,” he said. "We have to work in the summer with this squad, but also in the window. See if you can strengthen the squad.
“Now we are far away so we have a lot of work to do. We make progress in this team in this squad, but we need better players if we want to compete for the highest.”
United was too good for Chelsea on Thursday.
Needing a point from its final two games to secure qualification to the Champions League, it went ahead in the sixth minute when Casemiro headed in Christian Eriksen's free kick.
Mykhaylo Mudryk should have put Chelsea ahead before that, but the $108-million signing completely misfired with only goalkeeper David de Gea to beat.
Martial doubled United's lead in first-half stoppage time and Fernandes added a third from the penalty spot in the 73rd after being brought down by Wesley Fofana.
It got worse for Fofana and Chelsea when the defender's misplaced pass was seized on and substitute Rashford added a fourth five minutes later.
Another substitute Alejandro Garnacho hit the bar late on as United went in search of another.
Chelsea substitute Joao Felix scored a consolation in the 89th, but it was another miserable night for the Londoners, who have now lost eight of their 10 games under interim manager Frank Lampard.
“It’s a bad year for the club,” Lampard said. "The important thing is you get to the bottom of how it improves.”
A concern for United was a first-half injury to Antony, which Ten Hag described as serious, while Luke Shaw also had to come off at halftime.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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