LONDON – For Erik ten Hag, the goal that sent Manchester United into the World Cup break on a high note is the perfect symbol of the progress his team has made in recent months.
In the last Premier League game before the tournament in Qatar, substitute Alejandro Garnacho came off the bench to score a stoppage-time winner that secured a 2-1 victory at Fulham on Sunday as United strengthened its grip on fifth place.
Despite a poor start under Ten Hag that saw United lose its first two games the team is now just three points off fourth-place Tottenham with a game in hand.
And the football is improving, too, despite being without a number of starters — including Cristiano Ronaldo, who missed a second straight game with an undisclosed illness but is expected to be fit for the World Cup.
“I think we have a base. We’re going in the right direction, I think the culture has changed," Ten Hag said when asked to sum up his first period in charge. “The attitude, the mentality has changed and that’s good. I think also now we improve our football base. We have got a better mentality and (what) you see today I think is the symbol of it, when you get the win in the last dying seconds of the game.”
The goal was also quite a statement by Garnacho, who has been criticized in the past for his attitude in training but showed his sublime talent by playing a clever one-two with Christian Eriksen on the edge of the box before running into the area to slot home past Bernd Leno just before the final whistle.
“We have seen in training that he is a big, big talent," Eriksen said. "He is starting to learn the movement of the game — when to dribble, when to pass but he’s a big talent.”
Eriksen had put United ahead after 14 minutes following a well-worked quick break as the Denmark international was on hand at the far post to steer in a deflected shot by Bruno Fernandes into an empty net.
Fulham was without star striker Aleksandar Mitrovic due to a foot problem but still managed to peg United back for large parts of the game and netted a deserved equalizer when former United winger Daniel James turned in a low cross from close range.
But while Fulham pushed for a winner, United's strength on the counter proved decisive and Garnacho's goal gives Ten Hag a solid platform going into the second half of the season. United was coming off a loss to Aston Villa last weekend but is now just six points behind crosstown rival Manchester City in second place, and 11 off leader Arsenal.
“We are now united, we have togetherness," Ten Hag said. "The dressing room, the staff, the directors, the whole club and the fans. There's a togetherness and I’m really happy with that development.”
Unai Emery has given Aston Villa quite the lift in the Premier League.
Emery made it two wins out of two since taking over from the fired Steven Gerrard as Villa recovered from a goal conceded in the opening minute to beat Brighton 2-1 in the early game.
It was Villa's first away win of the season and comes on the heels of the 3-1 victory over Man United in Emery's debut last weekend.
“It was a difficult match, tough defensively (and) we had to be together,” Emery said. "We had some players out but really, I think the job was fantastic.”
Danny Ings scored both goals for Villa, equalizing with a first-half penalty and then netting the winner in the 54th minute with a low deflected shot that snuck inside the near post.
It was a shaky start for Villa, though, as Emery's insistence on playing out from the back nearly cost his team dearly. With Brighton putting goalkeeper Emi Martinez under pressure, the Argentine’s short pass to Douglas Luiz was won by Alexis Mac Allister, who rifled home after just 49 seconds for his fifth goal of the season.
It was the fastest goal ever scored by Brighton in the Premier League, but the team remained in seventh place with the loss. Villa climbed to 12th.
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