LONDON (AP) — Erik ten Hag looks increasingly likely to be taking over a Manchester United team missing from the Champions League.
Potentially a squad of superstars in disarray, too.
Despite Cristiano Ronaldo making an emotional scoring return, United was beaten 3-1 at Arsenal in the Premier League on Saturday and dropped six points off its rival in the race for a top-four finish.
Granit Xhaka blew kisses to the home fans — who have often criticized him — after his long-range, 70th-minute strike clinched victory for Arsenal in a wild game at Emirates Stadium that saw the hosts lead 2-0 after 32 minutes on goals by Nuno Tavares and Bukayo Saka before withstanding a fightback from United launched by Ronaldo’s 100th Premier League goal.
The Portugal superstar, who missed the 4-0 loss to Liverpool on Tuesday while grieving the death of his newborn son, raised his left arm and pointed to the sky after scoring in the 34th minute.
Ronaldo might have had a chance to score an equalizer when United was awarded a penalty in the 55th after the ball struck the raised hand of Tavares at a corner. But instead of Ronaldo taking the spot kick, compatriot Bruno Fernandes took over and sent a weakly hit effort against the outside of the post following his trademark stuttering run-up.
To make matters worse for Fernandes, it was his miscontrol that gave Xhaka the opportunity to take aim and claim the crucial third goal for Arsenal, which climbed into fourth place above north London rival Tottenham.
“If you look at the table,” interim United manager Ralf Rangnick said, “I don’t think it’s very realistic to dream and think of the top four.”
Sixth-place United has four games left of a miserable season that will end with no trophies — for the fifth straight year — and see Ten Hag take over from Rangnick, the second of two caretaker managers installed by the club since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was fired in November.
Ten Hag has a major job on his hands to rebuild United into the trophy-winning force of old. Rangnick said Friday the team needed open heart surgery as opposed to cosmetic changes and he was just as blunt a day later in assessing United’s current problems.
“I think the whole group get on reasonably with each other — I’m daring to say they get on well with each other,” Rangnick said.
“Quite obviously it’s hard to motivate … to keep the energy level high,” he added. “That’s why it was still important to show some improvement and a reaction today, which was the case. Obviously there is no substitute to success.”
This was another worrying defensive display after United’s mauling by Liverpool.
Club captain Harry Maguire was left out by Rangnick, because of a combination of the England defender’s poor recent form and the fact he received a bomb threat at his home during the week.
“After all the issues Harry had to deal with, it was a tough week for him,” Rangnick said.
Saka went off injured midway through the second half but he had already done his damage by then. It was his curling shot that was palmed out by David De Gea straight to the feet of Tavares, who turned the ball home from close range in the third minute.
Then Saka scored a penalty for the second straight game — after doing so in the 4-2 win over Chelsea on Wednesday — after he was bundled over by Alex Telles. Eddie Nketiah pounced on the loose ball and converted his shot but was adjudged offside, only for VAR to spot the foul on Saka in the buildup.
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