MANCHESTER: Erik ten Hag said Manchester United are back where they belong after a 4-1 thrashing of Chelsea on Thursday secured a return to the Champions League next season.
Casemiro, Anthony Martial, Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford were on target as the Red Devils moved up to third in the Premier League.
A miserable night summed up Chelsea’s season despite spending over £500 million ($620 million) in the transfer market as they slumped to an eighth defeat in 10 games since Frank Lampard returned as interim manager.
By contrast, confirmation of a top-four finish rounds off a successful first season in charge for Ten Hag, after also ending United’s six-year trophy drought by winning the League Cup in February.
More silverware could be to come next month should United halt Manchester City’s charge toward the treble in the FA Cup final.
But a return to Europe’s elite competition next season was one of Ten Hag’s primary aims when he took the reigns after a disastrous 2021/22 campaign when United finished sixth.
“I think (it is) a successful season but the season is not finished,” said Ten Hag.
“This club belongs in the Champions League, but this league is very strong, with many clubs competing for this position.
“It is the main objective of the season to get into the Champions League. The competition is tough, many teams with really good squads, good managers, so you are doing a good job (to qualify). For this moment it is the maximum but we want more (next season).”
Casemiro’s arrival from Real Madrid has been fundamental to United’s revival.
The 31-year-old’s class and experience shone through against a youthful Chelsea side that were punished for a lack of efficiency in both boxes.
“It was another reality day today when you look at the emphatic nature at the top end of the pitch of United compared to us,” said Lampard. “Results for Chelsea this season are not good enough.”
Mykhailo Mudryk should have netted his first Chelsea goal when the Ukrainian sliced wide a glorious chance on five minutes.
Just 60 seconds later, the visitors trailed as Casemiro was afforded a free header to turn home Christian Eriksen’s free-kick.
A positive night for United was blighted by an injury to winger Antony, who was forced off on a stretcher with an ankle injury that will make him a major doubt for the FA Cup final in 10 days’ time.
But the home side ended the game as a contest in first-half stoppage time when Casemiro’s no-look pass opened up the Chelsea defense for Jadon Sancho to square for Martial.
Ten Hag’s men should have had more goals to round off a fine night in the second period as Fernandes smashed against the bar and Eriksen somehow failed to turn in Tyrell Malacia’s cross from point-blank range.
Fernandes did finally get his goal from the penalty spot after the Portuguese midfielder was brought down by Wesley Fofana.
More calamitous Chelsea defending invited Rashford to become the first United player in a decade to score 30 goals in a season.
Fernandes pounced on Fofana’s loose pass and teed up the England international, who needed two attempts to beat Kepa Arrizabalaga.
The waste of Chelsea’s season can be summed up by the £10 million loan fee splurged on Joao Felix in January for a few months with little left to play for.
But the Portuguese international showed a glimmer of his quality with a surging run and low finish for a late consolation that denied David de Gea his 18th clean sheet of the season.