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Erik ten Hag says Casemiro has exceeded expectations since arriving at Manchester United after his goal to beat Bournemouth took the team to within a point of Champions League qualification.
The 1-0 win puts United on the brink of a return to Europe’s top club competition next season, with Liverpool’s draw against Aston Villa meaning Ten Hag’s side need only a draw from their final two games.
Casemiro’s brilliantly improvised strike was the difference at the Vitality Stadium, the Brazilian finishing off Christian Eriksen’s cross with a wonderful overhead volley after nine minutes.
United were not at their best but did enough to contain Bournemouth, who went close to levelling late on through Kieffer Moore after David De Gea had denied them with a string of reflex saves.
Ten Hag’s team need only to avoid defeat against Chelsea at Old Trafford on Thursday to ensure they will go into the final game with their objective in the league this season secured before turning attentions to the FA Cup final.
The manager singled out match-winner Casemiro’s contributions as being key on the south coast and throughout his time at the club.
“He keeps surprising us, Casemiro,” said Ten Hag. “He’s such a brilliant football player. We know him as very good (at) organisation, positioning, anticipating, intercepting a lot of balls, winning duels, a fighter. Also in possession, his passing and distribution, but also finishing. Just a great football player.
We’re happy we found him and his contribution is massive
“Absolutely (he has exceeded expectations), by far. One of the things that came when we analysed, we missed a player in the midfield. We searched and it was not easy because there are not many in the profile whose standard fits the standard of Manchester United. We’re happy we found him and his contribution is massive.”
United had been within minutes of wrapping up their place in the top four with two games to spare, only for a late equaliser for fifth-placed Liverpool against Villa at Anfield to ensure that, mathematically at least, Jurgen Klopp’s side remain in the hunt.
But it would take a total collapse from United during the Premier League’s final week to deny them from here.
If they take a point at home to Frank Lampard’s side it will render the result of the meeting with Fulham on the final day irrelevant and mean preparations can begin for the showdown with Manchester City at Wembley on June 3.
Ten Hag said he had not been aware of the score at Anfield but stressed their goal had been in their own hands all along.
“It’s not important, I’m telling you already for weeks it’s not about our opponents,” he said. “We are in the lead, it’s only up to us, we have everything in our hands, we don’t have to look behind. We have to make our performance. It’s nothing to do with any other team. It’s to do with the opponent on the day.
“Very happy. First 25 minutes was a very good performance from our team, maybe one of the highest levels this season. It’s the way we want to play football.
“Pin the opponent back, good on the ball, a lot of movements, good counter-press. Against a good team, Bournemouth, they can really play very good structures, I like them and their way of play.
“You can see they’re already safe two games before the end. They didn’t have any chance to play out because we dominated them totally. We created chances and we scored a brilliant goal.”
Bournemouth boss Gary O’Neil, whose team went into the game already secured of their top-flight status for next season, felt the Cherries matched United on the day and reflected on his side having beaten the drop with room to spare.
“I was pleased, I thought it was a good performance,” he said.
“United are full-throttle at the moment and we were obviously understrength. Five key players missing, a little bit short today. I didn’t think there was much in it, our chances were as good as theirs. I don’t think anyone could have complained if Kieffer Moore had scored and it had finished 1-1.
“I think everyone felt the Everton game (next week) would be pivotal. The fact that it isn’t shows what a big achievement it’s been from the players to stay up with four games to spare.”
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