Bruno Fernandes strengthened Manchester United’s grip on Champions League qualification as his winner ended Aston Villa’s 10-match unbeaten run; Old Trafford has been the scene of more protests against the Glazer family’s ownership, but Erik ten Hag’s steadfast link between players and fans remains strong
6:04 UK Monday 01 May 2023
Erik ten Hag has called it “madness” to question whether Bruno Fernandes is fit to captain Manchester United.
Fernandes’ first-half strike earned a hard-fought 1-0 win over Aston Villa on Sunday as United consolidated their bid for a top-four finish in the Premier League.
Speaking after the win at Old Trafford, United boss Ten Hag praised his captain, saying: “He’s so fit. There were questions about his captaincy a few weeks ago, which was crazy because he’s such a great leader.
“He leads by example, he gives so much energy to the team, so much desire and determination. If you want to win games and trophies, you need players like that.”
United’s winning goal came after they exploited Aston Villa’s high defensive line, with Fernandes firing in a deflected shot after Marcus Rashford raced in behind to force a save from goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez.
Ten Hag explained how Portugal international Fernandes is vital to the success of such a tactic, adding: “You need players like Bruno to be successful because he can play a deeper role with his passing.
“As a 10, we know what he can bring, but he’s also a very good presser and knows when to close. He also knows when to drop back and shut down passes.
“So even when our press gets beat, he knows when to come back and then of course he can play between the lines and make passes. He has so many skills. It’s a pleasure to work with players like him.”
Ten Hag also praised Casemiro’s performance, citing the Brazilian’s influential leadership as key to United resisting Villa’s second-half onslaught.
Asked if Casemiro had resumed his best form against Villa after a slump in recent weeks, the Dutchman said: “In every season you will see that nobody always plays brilliantly. He plays at such a high level.
“His suspensions maybe disrupted his rhythm, but today it was the Casemiro we’ve had all season. He brings so much organization, composure and determination.
“His leadership is so important to us because others follow him and lead by example. Especially in the second half we saw a determined team with passion, a team that wanted to win more than the opposition.”
The match came just two days after Sheikh Jassim and Sir Jim Ratcliffe submitted their third and, expected to be final, bid to buy United.
Other parties are interested in minority investments, and it has been reported that Joel and Avram Glazer may remain shareholders in a deal proposed by Ratcliffe.
A group of United fans marched to Old Trafford in protest against the Glazers, holding a huge banner reading “Sold Out Only”.
Off-field protesters’ torches also filled the air at Old Trafford, but many ignored the call for an 18-minute boycott – one minute for each year of Glazer ownership.
Asked if the anger in the background could make things more difficult for his side, the Ten Hag said: “We really felt the fans were behind us.
“So we have to focus to be successful because that’s what the fans expect and can expect. They have to rely on us, so we will focus on that.
“I’m sure when we keep performing like we’ve been doing all season, the fans are behind us and there’s a lot of energy and I think there’s a really strong connection between the fans and the players.”
Emery: Man United are worthy winners
Aston Villa manager Unai Emery admitted Manchester United were worthy winners.
“I’m a bit disappointed today,” Emery said. “United deserved to win but at 1-0 you can go into the penalty area for 90 minutes and score one goal. But we have to close the gap between them and us, use more opportunities to win here. But I am happy in our process.
“In the first half today we didn’t play well, we didn’t feel good. In the second half we improved, but it wasn’t enough. In the end, after analyzing this match, we can take more information, but I think it can be better .”
Villa are still in the European places but their advantage over Brighton is just two points and the Seagulls have three games in hand. On the other hand, there is still a chance for Villa to finish above Liverpool or Tottenham – they play all three in their last three games.
“First, we have to win our games, we have to get points. Of course there are other teams, Liverpool, Tottenham, Brighton and Brentford. We will have the opportunity to win games, but we will only think about the next game against Wolves.
“Brighton has [played] three games less than us. It’s not normal, the circumstances, but it is. We will play the last game against Brighton. If we get to this game with the opportunity to play in Europe, that would be fantastic.
“It’s hard if you go for the top 10. It’s really hard if you go for the European places because you have to win, win and win. They’re tough games to face, but we’re up for it and we’re excited about the opportunity.”