Legendary former Manchester United captain Roy Keane is confident that a top-four finish is within reach, while manager Erik ten Hag’s belief is growing.
In terms of points, United may only be three steps closer to the coveted top four after their victory at Aston Villa on Sunday than they were after losing at Nottingham Forest on December 30.
But the optics favor them.
Three consecutive Premier League victories, including late wins at Wolves and now at Villa Park after Scott McTominay settled a game United could easily have lost. Four successive triumphs in all competitions for the first time this season and winnable matches against Luton and Fulham to come.
This latest win leaves them just six points off fourth-placed Spurs and a point nearer Aston Villa in fifth, which could even be enough to secure Champions League football next season with the two most successful countries in Europe securing an extra spot in next year’s revamped competition.
Keane is happy to shine the spotlight on the sides United are trying to chase down.
“They have the momentum,” the Irishman told Sky Sports. “The teams ahead of them – especially Aston Villa and Tottenham – will be worried. They are hunting them down.”
Former Manchester United right-back Gary Neville added: “Man Utd could have been out of it today but they are now within touching distance.”
Ten Hag doesn’t do hyperbole. But he does provide blunt analysis.
“We put ourselves in this situation and we have to catch up,” he said. “We can beat any opponent away or home but sometimes away we have to believe it more.
“We could have won at Arsenal, we deserved to win there, and we could have won at Liverpool, it is about belief and this team today believed we could win.”
Hojlund on fire
Before the first meeting between United and Villa on Boxing Day, Rasmus Hojlund had yet to score his first Premier League goal. More importantly, he didn’t even look like scoring one. His confidence seemed to be draining away.
But as United roared back to turn a two-goal deficit into a thrilling 3-2 win, the 21-year-old secured victory by ramming home the loose ball after a Bruno Fernandes corner had struck John McGinn.
It’s fair to say the goal has transformed Hojlund’s season.
The Dane held his position in the center of the Villa six-yard area on Sunday as Harry Maguire headed the ball back from Fernandes’ corner. Ollie Watkins played Hojlund onside and the striker swept home.
He has now scored six in seven games and five in his last five Premier League games. The only player to achieve the latter feat at a younger age was Nicolas Anelka, who won the Premier League and FA Cup double with Arsenal in 1997-98.
“Every time Hojlund walks onto the pitch now he looks like he will believe he can score goals,” said Keane.
“He is a different player to his former self. He is full of confidence and shows real desire. The fact he has had to play week in and week out has actually been a big help to him.”
Ten Hag might have wanted Harry Kane at the start of the summer but he has repeatedly defended United’s decision to go for youth and invest £72m on signing Hojlund from Serie A outfit Atalanta.
And, just as questioning of the wisdom of that decision may start to ease, so too will the debate over goalkeeper Andre Onana.
When United were fighting to keep Onana as long as possible before he eventually reported for Cameroon duty at the Africa Cup of Nations, some were puzzled. Onana’s form had been so patchy they wondered why Ten Hag was so reluctant to allow Turkey international Altay Bayindir step in on an extended basis.
At Villa Park, Onana delivered.
“Their keeper was fantastic,” Villa boss Unai Emery said.
It was an understatement as he produced a string of impressive saves to frustrate the hosts.
Given the number of times he has had to defend the pair, Ten Hag must have been satisfied with their joint contribution.
“The prize is awarded at the end of the season,” the Dutchman said. “We are in February and we have many games to play but we are returning. We have to improve our game but we are pleased we have a series of wins.”z z z z z z z z z z
Ten Hag played down a spat between United defender Raphael Varane and Douglas Luiz, which appeared to be triggered by the Villa midfielder’s reaction when he scored and required the intervention of referee Rob Jones.
“I don’t have an opinion about that,” he said. “I haven’t spoken to the players. I don’t think it is important.”
The United boss also said he was not prepared to take a risk with Luke Shaw, who failed to reappear for the start of the second half.
Shaw was making only his fourth appearance of his latest return from injury after spending three months on the sidelines earlier in the campaign with a muscle problem.
“Luke had some complaints and we know his history,” Ten Hag said. “He has had too many injuries and we couldn’t take that risk and miss him for six weeks.”