Belfast Telegraph

Zlatan Ibrahimovic focuses Manchester United eyes on the prizes

Manchester United 2-0 Watford

By Tim Rich

It has been the longest march but finally Manchester United can see the prize.

As they have so many times this season, Jose Mourinho's side finished the weekend in sixth place. But after four unbeaten months, the quality of that sixth place has changed.

The weekend after their last defeat, a 4-0 rout at Chelsea, Manchester United were held to a goalless draw by Burnley, a match that saw Mourinho sent to the stands. The gap between United and the Champions League places was seven points. The talk was that the Premier League's biggest club was facing a third season in four out of the European elite.

It says something that it has taken United 15 unbeaten matches to whittle that gap down by six points. But they have and in the wake of Saturday's 2-0 win over Watford, a club that has never managed a league victory at Old Trafford, thanks to goals from Juan Mata and Anthony Martial the mood in the home dressing room was almost euphoric.

Daley Blind, a man not usually given to making any kind of wild statement, said: "It will be close and we will need to focus but I am sure we will be in the top four at the end of the season."

The same cannot be said of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. When he spoke to reporters after the final whistle, United had briefly moved up into fifth before Liverpool's emphatic victory over Tottenham pushed them back to where they have been since October.

"From the four teams in front, only one will become champions," said Ibrahimovic, presumably referring to Chelsea. "The rest will not get a trophy but we already have one (the Community Shield), we can get our second one (the League Cup) and we are still in the Europa League and the FA Cup, so if we don't become champions in the Premier League, we can at least try to win two or three trophies."

Like many foreigners, Ibrahimovic counts the Community Shield as a trophy in a way most British football men would not - Sir Alex Ferguson always considered it a final pre-season friendly.

It was a strange statement in other ways - of the teams above them, only Liverpool are no longer in the FA Cup while Manchester City, Spurs and Arsenal are also chasing European trophies.

However dismissive Ibrahimovic sounded, the fact remains that as United prepare to re-enter the Europa League against St Etienne on Thursday, there is a thread of deep confidence running through the club.

Mourinho joked that, if the first-half display had been conducted by another manager - he meant Arsene Wenger - the media would be talking about football as art.

Ibrahimovic said: "We know where we are and that we have been stuck in the same position for many months. We had fifth spot for perhaps 20 minutes and we are back in the same position now but we know what we need to do. We need to keep winning and hope others lose points."

That may not be quite so straightforward. Liverpool and Chelsea will welcome the return of the Europa League, which this season has been a competition United have struggled to come to terms with.

Not only did they not top their group, they played indifferently in the league matches that followed.

Two of their worst performances of the season, the 3-1 defeat at Watford and the 4-0 thrashing at Stamford Bridge, followed a Europa League fixture. So, too, did costly home draws to Stoke and West Ham.

Should United reach the semi-finals, they will have to play Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham immediately after the Europa League games.

The mood at Old Trafford on Saturday evening was of top four and trophies. However, despite everything they have achieved in those last four months, it still might be top four or trophies.

Belfast Telegraph


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