MANCHESTER, England (By JAMES ROBSON AP Soccer Writer) — In just 12 months, Manchester United has gone from jeers to cheers.
Sunday’s League Cup final celebrations at Wembley came a year to the day since a chorus of boos rang around Old Trafford after a goalless draw with lowly Watford.
The 20-time English champions went on to record their worst season in the Premier League and finished 35 points below title-winning Manchester City.
Few could have expected such a rapid turnaround when new manager Erik ten Hag was hired last summer. But the man who led Ajax to three Dutch titles in four seasons has already got United back to winning ways, ending a six-year trophy drought and keeping the club fighting on three more fronts going into the final months of the campaign.
As improbable as a quadruple might be, United is still in contention in all domestic competitions and advanced to the round of 16 in the Europa League after last week’s memorable win against Spanish league leader Barcelona.
And with confetti still scattered on the field at Wembley, Ten Hag set out his mission to deliver more silverware.
“It is one cup in February but it shows the right direction. This has to be the inspiration,” he said. “If you work very hard, if you stick together then things are possible.”
THE FA CUP
United hosts West Ham in the fifth round on Wednesday with a place in the quarterfinals at stake.
The competition has already opened up after a host of Premier League clubs went out in the early rounds, including league leader Arsenal, Cup holder Liverpool and big-spending Chelsea.
With Fulham taking on Leeds, it means another top-flight team will make way before the next round, along with the loser between United and West Ham.
Should United advance, then City remains the biggest threat, along with fourth-place Tottenham.
Both of those teams face second-division opposition, with City traveling to Bristol City on Tuesday and Spurs playing away at Sheffield United on Wednesday.
THE EUROPA LEAGUE
The win against a Barcelona team that is seven points ahead of Champions League holder Real Madrid in Spain has seen United installed as the favorite to lift the trophy.
But there are a number of big names left in the competition, including Arsenal, Juventus and Roma.
United faces another Spanish team in Real Betis in the round of 16 and should be confident after overcoming Barca in the playoffs. Yet, even if the Europa League is considered European soccer’s second-tier competition, there are plenty of tests to come if Ten Hag’s team advances again.
The scheduling of the competition has also been an issue for teams in the past, given that games are played on Thursday nights, which can impact preparations for domestic matches at the weekend.
THE PREMIER LEAGUE
While a prolonged title challenge could be too big of an ask for a team that is still early in its development, third-place United is currently in contention at the top, sitting eight points behind Arsenal.
And having already played both Arsenal and City twice this season, there is the chance to close the gap when the leading pair face each other again in April.
Ten Hag will be encouraged by the fact that his team is improving as the season progresses, while Arsenal has shown signs of wobbling in recent weeks and City is yet to fully convince.
The depth of United’s squad could be the biggest obstacle, with Christian Eriksen’s ankle injury ruling him out for the majority of the rest of the season and Anthony Martial struggling to stay fit.
It has left Ten Hag more reliant on January loan signings Wout Weghorst and Marcel Sabitzer than he might have wanted. Both have contributed, but cannot offer the same quality as Eriksen and Martial.
Casemiro’s recent suspension saw the team struggle to cope in his absence, while Marcus Rashford is the primary source of goals.
Should anything happen to the England forward, it would potentially derail United’s season.
United’s lack of title experience is another factor, which is why serial winners like Casemiro and Raphael Varane could be crucial in the closing stages of the campaign. Lisandro Martinez and Antony also have experience of winning league titles under Ten Hag at Ajax.
CAN IT BE DONE?
Under iconic former manager Alex Ferguson, United became the first and only English soccer team to win the league title, Champions League and FA Cup in one season in 1999.
City won a treble of domestic trophies – the league, FA Cup and League Cup – in 2019. Pep Guardiola’s team is also still in contention to emulate United’s 99 treble this season.
Liverpool looked on course for an unprecedented quadruple last season, but ended up with just the FA Cup and League Cup after finishing runner-up in the league and losing to Madrid in the Champions League final.
After securing one trophy, a second of any description, along with a top-four Champions League-qualifying spot would be considered a major success for Ten Hag.