Man United will have their hands full securing top-four finish

MANCHESTER, England — Marcus Rashford’s 28th goal of the season sealed a narrow 1-0 win against Brentford and lifted Manchester United back into the top four in the race to qualify for the Champions League.

The win was United’s first in the Premier League since a 3-1 Old Trafford victory against Leicester City in February, and it also avenged their 4-0 loss at Brentford in August. United moved three points clear of fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur, whom they face away from home on April 27 in the battle to finish fourth.

It tells you a lot about the slog that Manchester United face to qualify for the Champions League that Rashford ended the team’s 326-minute Premier League goal drought to seal a crucial win against Brentford. United have not been playing well in recent weeks, and having seemingly been comfortable in their pursuit of a top-four finish, a run of three games without a goal — which included defeats at Liverpool and Newcastle United — has dragged them back into a fight to the finish for a Champions League spot.

They needed to beat Brentford to regain control of their objectives — the victory moved them three points clear of fifth-place Tottenham, having played one game fewer — but although United secured the win, it was an effort from start to finish to get over the line. United are running out of steam at the worst possible time, but they still have two months of the season to play and remain active in three competitions in the Premier League, Europa League and FA Cup.

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With key players such as Christian Eriksen and Casemiro injured or suspended, manager Erik ten Hag has to find a way to drag his team over the line until those two world-class midfielders are available again. Jadon Sancho, Antony and Scott McTominay all are trying to find their best form, and January loan signing Wout Weghorst was dropped for the first time in 19 games because of a prolonged period of ineffectiveness, leaving Ten Hag with a squad that is both fatigued and lacking in confidence.

Despite that, they managed to get the win against Brentford because Rashford bailed them out once again.

The England forward took his tally to the season to 28 goals. One more will see him eclipse Bruno Fernandes and Zlatan Ibrahimovic as having scored the most in a season for the club since Sir Alex Ferguson retired 10 years ago.

The Rashford goal summed up the formula that will get United back into the Champions League: win at home and rely on Rashford to score the goals. The Red Devils haven’t won a league game without Rashford scoring since the 1-0 victory at Fulham in November, and that win was the only time this season they have beaten any of the top 10 away from Old Trafford.

This win might be the spark Man United need to build momentum again, but with tired bodies and minds, the reality is that it will be a test of Ten Hag’s management skills to ensure his team finish in the top four. Still, with the teams behind them all struggling for form and consistency, United can at least breathe easily in the knowledge that nobody is hunting them down.

BEST: Marcus Rashford, Manchester United. Came to United’s rescue again with his 28th goal of the season to open the scoring in a difficult game. Where would United be without his goals?

BEST: David Raya, Brentford. The Brentford goalkeeper was solid and reliable and had no chance on Rashford’s goal. Rarely gets the credit his performances deserve.

BEST: Bruno Fernandes, Manchester United. Not every pass found its intended target, but the United captain was his team’s creative force and helped the home side maintain control of the game.

WORST: David De Gea, Manchester United. The United goalkeeper’s poor distribution with his feet almost led to two Brentford goals. His passing is a clear weakness and a reason why Ten Hag may look elsewhere for a keeper.

WORST: Mathias Jensen, Brentford. The Brentford midfielder struggled to make a telling contribution and was substituted early in the second half.

WORST: Scott McTominay, Manchester United. Picked up his ninth booking of the season for a reckless challenge on Jensen. Needs to stay on his feet when tackling.

If Man United are playing, you can count on finding a Rashford goal in this space. The man doesn’t quit.

Rashford: “We are in that period of the season where every game is important and every game counts, so we are pleased to win and hopefully we can get back to where we were a few weeks ago. The important thing is always to win the next game. Everyone is clear that we are not going to play our best every week, but there is never a time to drop our standards and we have to keep trying to push each other every week.”

Ten Hag: “We played very good football; it’s not easy against this Brentford team to create chances. It was a great finish [from Rashford], he’s in very good form, so hopefully he can keep doing that until the end of the season.”

– Rashford’s 28 goals this season in all competitions tie Fernandes (in 2020-21) and Ibrahimovic (2016-17) for most by a Man United player in the past 10 seasons.

– Rashford’s goal vs. Brentford was his first in the Premier League since netting a brace against Leicester on Feb. 19.

Manchester United: United will return to Old Trafford on Saturday, when they play host to Everton in the Premier League.

Brentford: The Bees travel back to west London for their own Saturday Premier League fixture, but it doesn’t look any more forgiving, with Newcastle United visiting the Community Stadium.

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