Erik ten Hag deserves big credit for bringing Manchester United back to the Champions League with a win over Chelsea, but there was some awkwardness surrounding his achievement.
United are a club built on fighting for – and winning – the highest honours. Finishing in a Champions League place can only be seen as progress rather than success.
Ten Hag inherited a basket case from a club that faltered last season, from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign collapsing to the turmoil of Ralf Rangnick’s fate as caretaker manager.
The Dutchman weathered the storm caused by Cristiano Ronaldo and stabilized the ship enough to lead United to Champions League qualification.
But that in itself can never be enough at United and Ten Hag admitted as much after beating Chelsea 4-1 to meet Liverpool’s challenge.
Erik ten Hag secured a Champions League place for Manchester United in his first season at Old Trafford – but insists his side should be tough for the Premier League title
Luke Shaw echoed that Manchester United should be a title challenge next campaign
“It’s not good enough for me,” the United manager said. “I think in this league it’s a good basis to be in the top four, but we want to compete for the title.
“Now we are far away, so we have a lot of work to do. We have progressed with this team, with this team, but we need better players if we want to compete for the top.
Prior to the match, Luke Shaw had echoed those thoughts. “We have to fight for the title with this team,” Shaw said.
“With the direction this manager is taking, I’m sure we’re going to make some big signings this summer. Our goal for next season must be to win the Premier League and the Champions League. This is how we should think from now on.
Even before United cracked the top four, Ten Hag noted that transfer targets seemed more enthusiastic about joining the club this year. But there is no doubt that being able to offer Champions League football will help. United can start from here.
Ten Hag knows he only did by. He and United will now be aiming much higher.
Casemiro (right) scored the opener as Manchester United triumphed over Chelsea on Thursday
Nobody likes to see a player carried on a stretcher, and it’s especially cruel when a serious injury strikes the week before a cup final.
You could only sympathize with Antony when the Brazilian winger was injured in the first half of Manchester United’s win over Chelsea on Thursday night following an innocuous challenge from Trevoh Chalobah.
Antony left the pitch on a stretcher in obvious distress and is clearly doubtful for the FA Cup final against Manchester City a week away on Saturday. “I can tell you it’s serious,” manager Erik ten Hag said, but United will wait 24 hours to find out the full extent of the damage.
City know what Antony can do. He scored an excellent goal at the Etihad in October as United restored some modicum of respectability in a 6-3 derby defeat.
But it’s been an up and down first season for him following an £82million move from Ajax. Some fans remain skeptical. For example, there isn’t the almost universal feeling of excitement when Alejandro Garnacho steps onto the pitch.
Antony’s turbulent debut season ended with the Brazilian being transported on a stretcher
The £82million star hit the ground in agony following an innocuous challenge from Trevoh Chalobah
If Antony is left out of the Cup final, Ten Hag will have a choice to make as one of the areas of the team where he is quite well off is at the wingers.
Common sense says he will choose Marcus Rashford on the left and Jadon Sancho on the right, two experienced England internationals playing on their preferred side of the pitch.
But there is no doubt that Antoine’s loss could be Garnacho’s gain. At the very least, he could be called to the bench earlier in the game.
We have to be careful not to put too many expectations on the young Argentina international’s shoulders, but he’s the kind of character who seems to like him. He could offer United an x-factor at Wembley that Antony, Sancho and even Rashford cannot.
His injury means Alejandro Garnacho (right) has a better chance of starting the FA Cup final
Garnacho has just returned to action after injuring his ankle. His breakthrough season was cut short by a challenge from Southampton defender Kyle Walker-Peters in March which left the teenager sidelined for seven weeks.
That’s how football works. One door closes and another opens. Antony’s absence would be cruel, but United have a very good alternative to Garnacho – and one ready to seize the opportunity.
If there was any consolation for Chelsea at Old Trafford, it was a reminder of how quickly fortunes can change at a football club.
Manchester United’s penultimate game last season resulted in a pathetic 4-0 defeat at Brighton. The club were going nowhere under caretaker manager Ralf Rangnick, and there was very little cause for optimism around Old Trafford.
New Chelsea boss Mauricio Pochettino has a lot to solve at Stamford Bridge next season
As Chelsea goalkeeper Frank Lampard prepares to hand over the reins to Mauricio Pochettino after eight defeats in 10 games, the comparisons are clear.
Like Erik ten Hag, Pochettino will receive money to rebuild. He has the personality and the experience to energize the whole club and get Chelsea back on track as quickly as they seem to have gone astray.
It could take at least a year and success next season could be defined by Champions League qualification, just like United. But the way forward is clear.
As long as Pochettino and owner Todd Boehly stick to what they do well, this can be seen as a temporary issue. A learning curve, albeit a painful one. United knows this well.