WHEELER: Ten Hag deserves credit for Man United's top four finish

CHRIS WHEELER: Erik ten Hag insists Man United should be challenging for the title, but he shouldn’t undervalue his achievements this season… the Dutchman inherited a club in crisis and deserves credit for his top four finish

  • Manchester United secured a Champions League place on Thursday evening
  • Erik ten Hag urged his side should be challenging for the Premier League title
  • Antony went off on a stretcher during Manchester United’s win over Chelsea

Erik ten Hag deserves great credit for guiding Manchester United back into the Champions League with victory over Chelsea, but there was a degree of awkwardness around his achievement.

United are a club built on challenging for – and winning – the highest honours. Finishing in a Champions League place can only be viewed as progress rather than success.

Ten Hag inherited a basket case of a club that had staggered through last season, from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign unravelling to the turmoil of Ralf Rangnick’s spell as interim manager.

The Dutchman weathered the storm whipped up by Cristiano Ronaldo and steadied the ship enough to lead United to Champions League qualification.

But that in itself can never be sufficient at United and Ten Hag admitted as much in the wake of beating Chelsea 4-1 to see off Liverpool’s challenge.

Erik ten Hag has secured a Champions League spot for Manchester United during his first season at Old Trafford – but insists his side should be challenging for the Premier League title

Luke Shaw echoed that Manchester United should be challenging for the title next campaign

‘It’s not good enough for me,’ said the United manager. ‘I think in this league, that’s a good base 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’ve made progress with this team, with this squad but we need better players if we want to compete for the highest.’

Before the game, Luke Shaw had echoed those thoughts. ‘We have to be challenging for the title with this team,’ said Shaw.

‘With the direction this manager is going under, I’m sure we’re going to make big signings this summer. Our aim for next season has to be winning the Premier League and the Champions League. That’s how we have to think from now on.’

Even before United secured a top-four finish, Ten Hag noted that transfer targets seemed more enthusiastic to join the club this year. But there is no doubt that being able to offer Champions League football will help. United can kick on from here.

Ten Hag knows he has only made par. He, and United, will be aiming a lot higher from now on.

Casemiro (right) netted the opener as Manchester United triumphed over Chelsea on Thursday

No-one likes to see a player hauled off on a stretcher, and it’s particularly cruel when serious injury strikes the week before a cup final.

You could only sympathise with Antony when the Brazil winger was hurt 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 a doubt for the FA Cup final against Manchester City a week on Saturday. ‘I can tell you it’s serious,’ confided manager Erik ten Hag, but United will wait for 24 hours to discover 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 a modicum of respectability in a 6-3 derby defeat.

But this has been an up-and-down first season for him following a £82million move from Ajax. Some fans remain unconvinced. For instance, there is not the almost universal sense of excitement when Alejandro Garnacho steps onto the pitch.

Antony’s up-and-down debut season ended with the Brazilian being hauled off on a stretcher

The £82m star hit the floor in agony following an innocuous challenge from Trevoh Chalobah

If Antony is ruled out of the Cup Final, Ten Hag will have a choice to make because one area of the team where he is quite well off is wingers. 

Common sense says that he will pick Marcus Rashford on the left and Jadon Sancho on the right, two experienced England internationals playing on their preferred sides of the pitch.

But there is no doubt that Antony’s loss could be Garnacho’s gain. At the very least, he may be called off the bench earlier in the game.

We have to be careful about putting too much expectation on the young Argentina international’s shoulders, but he is the kind of character who seems to relish it. 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 only just returned to action after suffering an ankle injury of his own. His breakthrough season was interrupted by a challenge from Southampton defender Kyle Walker-Peters in March that left the teenager on the sidelines for seven weeks.

That’s how football works. One door shuts and another door opens. Antony’s absence would be cruel, but United have a very good alternative in Garnacho – and one ready to seize his opportunity.

If there was any consolation for Chelsea at Old Trafford, it was a reminder of how quickly fortunes can turn around at a football club.

Manchester United’s penultimate game of last season brought a pathetic 4-0 defeat at Brighton. The club were going nowhere under interim manager Ralf Rangnick, and there was very little cause for optimism around Old Trafford.

Incoming Chelsea boss Mauricio Pochettino has plenty to solve at Stamford Bridge next term

As Chelsea caretaker 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 be given money to rebuild. He has the personality and experience to energise the whole club and get Chelsea back on track as quickly as they seem to have lost their way.

It could take at least a year and success next season may be defined by Champions League qualification, just like United. But the path ahead is a clear one.

As long as Pochettino and owner Todd Boehly stick to what they’re good at, this can be written off as a temporary blip. A learning curve, albeit a painful one. United know it well.

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