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Ten Hag says result at Etihad won't define United's season

March 01, 2024 11:29 IST

 Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes was subject of ridicule after Fulham posted a video that poked fun at him

IMAGE: Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes was subject of ridicule after Fulham posted a video that poked fun at him. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

Manchester United have the opportunity to knock Manchester City off their perch when they travel to the Etihad Stadium on Sunday even if they will not be the main beneficiaries of a surprise Premier League win.


United's new minority owner Jim Ratcliffe laid out his plans to return the 20-time English champions to the summit when he completed his acquisition of 27% of the club's shares this month, including re-establishing the pecking order in the city.

With 15 points separating second-placed City to sixth-placed United, that ambition might take a while to come to fruition.

United are a long way from a gripping three-way title race also featuring leaders Liverpool and Arsenal, but would take immense satisfaction at denting City's hopes of winning a record fourth successive Premier League crown.

City, who are one point behind Liverpool and one ahead of Arsenal with 12 games left, are unbeaten in their last 18 games in all competitions and warmed up for the derby with a 6-2 FA Cup win at Luton Town in which Erling Haaland scored five times.

United also reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup in midweek and were in a decent run of league form themselves until a 2-1 home defeat by Fulham last weekend.

"We are also on a good run, the spirit is very good," manager Erik Ten Hag said on Thursday. "We have done it before against City, also against Liverpool. We will prepare well. The players are looking forward to it. I can smell it. I'm excited."

United were humiliated 6-3 in the fixture last season but won the home match, although they also lost to Pep Guardiola's side in the FA Cup final with City going on to match United's 1999 feat by completing a treble.

City, who also won 3-0 at Old Trafford in October, are in ominous form, but Ten Hag says his side can halt their charge.

"We need a great day," he said. "We like the challenge and we are looking forward to challenge with them. We know we have to give everything and show a team performance, if we want to get the result. But if you do it, it is possible."

Ten Hag scolded Fulham on Thursday for a TikTok video that poked fun at his captain Bruno Fernandes, suggesting the midfielder feigned injury in their 2-1 loss to the London side at Old Trafford last weekend.

"It is not right," Ten Hag said in his press conference to preview Sunday's Manchester derby. "It is absolutely not right that a clip makes such statements. It is totally out of order and they were wrong so they should apologise for this."

Ten Hag expects Fernandes and Raphael Varane, who both played against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup fifth round win on Wednesday despite injury concerns, will be fit for the Premier League clash with reigning champions Manchester City.

"They (Fernandes and Varane) fought to be part of the game and they came out of it well so I think they will be available for Sunday as well," Ten Hag said.

Liverpool's teen sensation Jayden Danns has been impressive in his short career so far

IMAGE: Liverpool's teen sensation Jayden Danns has been impressive in his short career so far. Photograph: Premier League/X

The Dutchman added that he can sense his team's excitement ahead of the derby and believes they can ride some momentum from the 1-0 win at Forest that put them into the quarter-finals.

"We are also in a good run, the spirit is very good, we are united, we have togetherness," Ten Hag said. "The players are ready for it, they are looking forward to it -- I can smell it when I speak to the players. We are excited."

United face a City side in superb form, a point behind leaders Liverpool in second place. United are sixth, eight points adrift of Aston Villa for a top-four spot, but are unbeaten in five of their last six league games.

Ten Hag said Sunday's result will not define their season.

"After City, there are many more games and we know we have to catch up but the games are there for us to catch up in the right position," Ten Hag told reporters.

The manager was asked if Sunday's clash was a chance to make a statement after United's new co-owner Jim Ratcliffe pledged last week that the club would knock City "off their perch."

"I think it has nothing to do with it, but we want to win every game, that is always our mentality and approach. It doesn't matter who the opponent is but you always want to play against the best," Ten Hag said.

"Most of the time we feel that the opposition get their best outputs against Manchester United. Maybe this game is the other way around but we know we have to give everything, a team performance if you want to get the result there -- but if you do that, it is possible."

Much of Thursday's pre-game press conference focused on the much-maligned Portugal international Fernandes, who Ten Hag defended as a passionate and creative player.

"He is creating the most chances in the Premier League," the Dutchman said. "You see opponents are targeting him and especially Saturday (against Fulham) when he had the knock and they see it, then I feel that the refereeing should protect him."

Liverpool have the advantage of playing first at the weekend with a trip to struggling Nottingham Forest on Saturday, while Arsenal go to bottom club Sheffield United on Monday.

Juergen Klopp's Liverpool have been decimated by injuries to key players but have maintained the momentum with their League Cup final win over Chelsea last weekend and a victory over Southampton in the FA Cup fifth round on Wednesday -- both of which highlighted the Anfield youth production line.

Free-scoring Arsenal, meanwhile, will be eyeing another chance to boost their goal difference against a Sheffield United side who have conceded 66 league goals this season.

The battle for Champions League qualification continues with fourth-placed Aston Villa away to Luton Town on Saturday and Tottenham Hotspur, who are five points behind with a game in hand, hosting Crystal Palace.

At the bottom, Everton will seek to crown a good week in which they had four points of their 10-point penalty for breaking financial rules returned on appeal.

Victory at home to West Ham United could lift them eight points clear of 18th-placed Luton.

"Adding on the points going back, and then adding a win on that against West Ham, then it'll be a very good week," manager Sean Dyche said. "We got four back, the league table looks different, now it's about using that wisely and stepping on."

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