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Erik ten Hag: Manchester United boss faces most pivotal period yet in season-defining 11 days across four competitions

Man Utd are the only side in Europe’s top five leagues still in with a chance of winning all four trophies; United play in all four competitions in an 11-day period starting on Thursday in the Europa League against Barcelona followed by Sunday’s Carabao Cup final against Newcastle

By the evening of Sunday March 5, Manchester United could be Carabao Cup winners, in the Europa League Round of 16, FA Cup quarter-finalists and remain in the Premier League title race.

In fact, United are the only club in Europe’s top five leagues still in with a chance of winning all four trophies – something boss Erik ten Hag was keen to point out in his programme notes on Sunday ahead of the 3-0 home win over Leicester.

A pivotal 11-day period that sees United fighting on all four fronts starts on Thursday, with the Europa League knockout round play-off second leg against Barcelona at Old Trafford.

The tie remains finely poised after a thrilling 2-2 draw in the first leg at the Nou Camp, and the return fixture was immediately on Ten Hag’s mind after the final whistle on Sunday as he issued a rallying message to the fans when heading down the tunnel.

When asked what he said to the crowd, he replied: “I said, ‘come Thursday, it is a big game. Make sure you are there and we are sure we can beat Barcelona together’.

“I thank the fans when they have that trust in me. I feel committed with this club and I love to be here.

“I will give everything to perform as good as possible. To bring them hopefully across limits.”

Erik ten Hag insists he is not thinking about the title race, despite closing to within three points of Manchester City following the victory over Leicester

Getting past the LaLiga leaders – who are unbeaten in their last 18 games in all competitions – will only further United fans’ trust in Ten Hag, who is entering a crunch phase early in his Old Trafford reign.

Just three days after facing Barcelona, United arguably have an even bigger match – the Carabao Cup final against Newcastle, live on Sky Sports.

United, though, will only have two full days to prepare for their first final in two years, while Newcastle have a full week to focus on Sunday’s showpiece event as they bid to win their first major domestic trophy in 68 years.

“Man Utd play on Thursday night against Barcelona in what is an important, monumental second leg after a brilliant game in the Nou Camp, so that might equalise it a little bit, that Man Utd have other thoughts this week,” Gary Neville told his Sky Sports podcast.

But Ten Hag sees two huge matches in the space of four days differently.

“It’s a big advantage for us,” the Dutchman told Sky Sports at the weekend. “We are used to playing big games and that will be a huge advantage for us. It’s about us to keep the momentum going.”

The momentum right now is certainly with United, rather than Eddie Howe’s Newcastle – and victory over Barcelona on Thursday would only strengthen United’s belief and confidence heading to Wembley.

Ten Hag’s men are already the bookmakers’ favourites to beat a Newcastle side who are winless in three games and are without goalkeeper Nick Pope on Sunday.

“Newcastle not having Pope for the Carabao Cup final is a blow to them,” Neville said. “It has to be an advantage to United for Newcastle to lose such an important player.

“But it’s going to be a really interesting game. I’m going to be there and I can’t wait for it because it’s a really intriguing story that both these clubs are desperate for a trophy.”

Indeed, a win for United at Wembley would end their six-year trophy drought and give Ten Hag his first piece of silverware as Red Devils boss in his first season in charge.

The League Cup’s significance should not be lost on the 53-year-old either – it was the first trophy that both Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola won in English football.

Man Utd stats: Carabao Cup final

  • Manchester United are competing in their 10th League Cup final, with only Liverpool (13) ever playing in more.
  • Only Liverpool (9) and Manchester City (8) have won the trophy more often than the Red Devils (5), while only Arsenal (6) and Tottenham (5) have lost more League Cup finals than Man Utd (4).
  • Manchester United boss Erik Ten Hag is set to become the first Dutch manager to take charge of a side in a League Cup final. Dutch managers have won three of their four domestic cup finals in England (all FA Cup – Ruud Gullit 1997, Guus Hiddink 2009, Louis van Gaal 2016), with the exception being Ruud Gullit’s Newcastle losing 2-0 against Manchester United in 1999.

But silverware is no guarantee of long-term prosperity at United, with both Mourinho and Louis van Gaal faltering at the club despite trophy success.

Neville, however, is confident that a Carabao Cup final victory would not herald another false dawn at Old Trafford.

“We have been here before at this level,” he said, “but this manager [Ten Hag] does seem to have something different at this moment in time.

“He’s getting a lot more out of that squad than I would expect.

“I think the managers before him had better players and better squads, but it does feel like this manager is getting a lot out of them.”

The importance of Carabao Cup success for the season ahead cannot be underestimated too – seven of the last nine winners of the competition have gone on to win another trophy in the same campaign.

Last year, Liverpool followed up their League Cup win by lifting the FA Cup – a competition United are still alive in this season.

And just three days after Sunday’s final, the FA Cup will be Ten Hag’s next focus with United hosting West Ham in the fifth round on March 1.

They will be expected to overcome the relegation-threatened Hammers and reach the quarter-finals to be three wins from potentially another trophy, in a competition where only Manchester City are shorter odds to win it.

Then, four days later, United return to Premier League action with a visit to rivals Liverpool on March 5, live on Sky Sports.

But, because of United’s congested schedule, they could find themselves 14 points behind leaders Arsenal if the Gunners win all three of their league games between now and March 4.

Meanwhile, second-placed Man City could be nine points clear of third-place United if they win their two league matches in the same period.

The Liverpool fixture will be one of two games in hand for United on Arsenal and City, although the trip to Anfield could suddenly feel like a must win if they are to keep up their title hopes.

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Sunday’s win over Leicester moved them to within five points of Arsenal, but Ten Hag dismissed any title chatter saying “it’s February, it’s not about the title race”.

Instead, his only focus is Barcelona – “first of all, we think about the next game on Thursday” – as Ten Hag and United enter a season-defining period.

Man Utd’s next six fixtures

Thursday: Barcelona (A) – Europa League knockout round play-off second leg, kick-off 8pm

Sunday: Newcastle (Wembley) – EFL Cup final, kick-off 4.30pm, live on Sky Sports

March 1: West Ham (H) – FA Cup fifth round, kick-off 7.45pm

March 5: Liverpool (A) – Premier League, kick-off 4.30pm, live on Sky Sports

March 11: Southampton (H) – Premier League, kick-off 3pm

March 19: Brighton (A) – Premier League, kick-off 2pm

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