Louis Saha: Champions League qualification is achievable for Manchester United.

 | February 12 | 

15 mins read

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On Sunday, Manchester United clinched a crucial victory away to Aston Villa to close the gap between themselves and the Villans to five points. Ex-Red Devil Louis Saha believes that Champions League qualification is still achievable for his former club, despite their patchy league form this season and believes their squad is beginning to show a greater level of consistency. Saha also spoke to Betfred regarding a potential renovation of Old Trafford, Bruno Fernandes to Saudi Arabia rumours and speculation claiming that PSG are interested in a move for Marcus Rashford.

After their 2-1 victory over Aston Villa on Saturday, are you feeling more confident about Manchester United’s prospects of qualifying for next season’s Champions League? 

“I think the chances look good because it was a convincing win against Aston Villa as they were under pressure, playing away from home and had a lot of questions to answer during that game. Aston Villa played very well, so Manchester United showed a lot of courage, organisation, resilience and confidence to get the points. Moving forward, the team seems a bit more in sync when it comes to hurting the opposition and that’s good to see. 

“The chances of them qualifying for the Champions League are better than they were a few months ago. It’s very good, and it’s a great sign, to see Manchester United winning away from home against a very good team and we are seeing a greater level of consistency from the starting eleven and the players coming off the bench too. The team spirit is evidently there and there are still a lot of things to improve, but the opportunity of them qualifying for the Champions League is still achievable. That’s for sure.”

In your personal opinion, what do you believe is Manchester United’s best centre-back partnership if everybody was fit?

“Erik ten Hag has had to contend with a lot of injuries this season and it’s been difficult for him to build his defensive foundation because of this. It’s very important to have a solid defensive foundation to take control of a game and in my view, [Lisandro] Martínez and [Raphaël] Varane have always looked like the most complimentary centre-back partnership for Manchester United.

“If you want to win a league title or go far in the Champions League, then you always need to have four centre-backs that are really good and when I was at Manchester United, it wasn’t always about [Rio] Ferdinand and [Nemanja] Vidić because there was also the likes of [Mikaël] Silvestre and Wes Brown. You need to find a way to rotate to give confidence to all the players, so you need to find the right moments to give all the players a chance to perform. 

“This is the challenge for Erik ten Hag. Even when you look at Victor [Lindelöf], he’s been reliable when he’s come into the side and he’s a really strong defender that I like a lot. Harry Maguire putting in a man of the match performance on Sunday, despite not playing all the time this year, was enormous because he showed great spirit, his commitment and this is essential for anybody playing for the club. It’s very important to have these sorts of leaders in the squad.”

How impressed have you been with the development of Diogo Dalot this season? Do you believe he can be Manchester United’s long-term right-back?

“He will always have to prove it because there’s good competition for his spot. This season for me, he’s shown that he’s a quality player, especially going forward and he’s improving when it comes to his defensive duties. The potential is there, he’s playing for his country as well, and nowadays, there’s a lot of demands on players in his position and Diogo is helping his forwards find the confidence they need too. Against Aston Villa, he put in the kind of performance that can help the whole team improve and congratulations to him, but this is just the start for him because he has to restart next week and the week after. It will be tough, but that’s part of the challenge and I’m sure he’s looking forward to it.”

What changes have you seen in Rasmus Højlund’s game recently that you believe have contributed to his success in front of goal in recent weeks?

“It starts with scoring goals, which is an obvious thing to say, but he’s evidently growing in confidence because there were times earlier in the season when he didn’t have the ball and he was having to chase it without getting the opportunities he deserved for all his hard work. Now he’s getting on the end of crosses more and more and he’s getting the luck which strikers need sometimes, so you can see in his eyes that the confidence is growing and his relationship on the pitch with his teammates is growing also. 

“Against West Ham, to see him dummy past the defender and put it in the bottom corner with his weak foot was amazing because you can see a player playing with full confidence and I can’t wait to see more from him. I’m sure he can still improve, as can many other players at the club, and you can see his potential and his quality, so I’m pleased to see young players at the club playing with such maturity and showing the right type of character. It’s great to see.”

It’s been reported that Sir Jim Ratcliffe is keen on transforming Old Trafford into the ‘Wembley of the North’. In your opinion, should Manchester United renovate Old Trafford or knock it down altogether and build a new stadium? Despite your own personal connection with Old Trafford, what do you believe will be best for the club going forward?

“It’s a difficult one because I love Old Trafford so much and it’s the dream of many, many people to play there, but it all depends on the renovation plan and the capacity they want to have in the stadium because the ‘Wembley of the North’ indicates that they want a huge stadium and the capacity to grow as a club. 

“For them to have this kind of vision is good for the supporters and they’ve been waiting for this. The fans have to understand that things may change and that’s the nature of coming out of your comfort zone. We saw Arsenal leave Highbury for the Emirates Stadium, but leaving Old Trafford will be even more difficult considering the history there, but whatever happens, anything will be easy to digest as long as there’s a trophy in the end to show for it.”

A report from ESPN last week has claimed that Manchester United are looking into the prospect of signing players this summer that have one year left on their current deals, drawing similarities to when Manchester United signed Mason Mount in July. Amongst the players listed in the article were Bayern Munich duo Joshua Kimmich and Alphonso Davies, Lille’s Jonathan David and Nice’s Khéphren Thuram. Firstly, do you believe that any of the Bayern duo can be convinced to move to Old Trafford and secondly, do you believe the Ligue 1 duo are ready enough to play for one of the Premier League’s best clubs?

“Regarding Jonathan David and Khéphren Thuram, I do believe they’re ready. I follow Khéphren as he plays next door to me and he has the power to play for any club in England, that’s for sure and it wouldn’t be a surprise to me at all if a move to England happens for him. For anyone who follows Ligue 1, they will understand that it’s the same for Jonathan David because he’s a really strong striker, he’s got a lot of quality and he’s a good player. If they move to the Premier League, both these players will need time to adapt but they’re certainly good players.

“Joshua Kimmich and Alphonso Davies are two extremely experienced players, especially Kimmich. Kimmich would obviously be a great fit because he’s one of the fittest players in Europe and is capable of running games and is very slick. He and Davies are both quality players, there’s no doubting that. 

“Going for players with one year remaining on their contract is a smart strategy, but sometimes it doesn’t work out. At this moment, Mason Mount hasn’t been a success at Manchester United, so ultimately it’s dependent on the character of the players, their suitability to the Premier League, the style of the team and many other factors. 

“Other teams will be interested in these players if their contracts are running down, so it won’t be easy for Manchester United to pull off any of these signings. If Manchester United are unable to offer these players Champions League next season, then that will be an advantage to certain other clubs looking to sign them.”

Over the weekend, Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma has been linked with a move to Manchester United, as well as Barcelona, Chelsea and Manchester CIty, but would you like to see the Japan international make the move to Old Trafford in the near future?

“He’s a terrific player that shows a lot of composure and unpredictability, so he provides a lot of guarantees for his teammates and his manager. He knows where to position himself, he’s a very hard worker and you can see that he studies the game. You can understand why he can easily adapt when you consider those features and he would be a perfect fit. I’m sure every club will be looking at Mitoma if he’s available because he’s such a big prospect. Regarding whether I’d like to see him move to Old Trafford or not is a really easy question to answer because he’s a terrific player.”

According to a recent report by the Daily Mail, José Mourinho wants to manage Manchester United once again. The report states that Mourinho believes that he has unfinished business at Old Trafford and is keen on working with INEOS. Do you believe this could be a successful appointment by your former club if this came to fruition?

“I respect José Mourinho’s pedigree and history in management, but it’s really difficult to predict what’s going to happen in football. We should all focus on Erik ten Hag’s mission at Manchester United because it would be disrespectful for me to speculate about a big name like Mourinho coming back to Old Trafford.  

“Everybody could say that Mourinho could come back to Manchester United and be successful because nobody should doubt the guy as he’s still a terrific manager. I believe Erik ten Hag is doing a brilliant job at the moment and it’s not great timing to discuss other managers taking over at Manchester United. As a fan, I don’t believe speculation will contribute anything positive to the team.”

If you were Gareth Southgate, would you be seriously considering taking Kobbie Mainoo to Euro 2024. Which player past or present does Kobbie remind you of most?

“It’s difficult to say who he compares to because he has his own style. I’m impressed by his composure considering how young he is. I think that kind of pressure, because a lot of people are asking for character in the midfield, especially with Casemiro now playing alongside him, he’s going to improve so much and very quickly, so it’s great for him. He has to take it game by game without others asking too much of him because he has to be protected. The pressure is obviously on his back and it’s good for him, but he has to keep his cool and improve his game knowledge by playing games alongside Manchester United’s biggest players. 

“I’m sure Gareth Southgate is already looking at him but I think it’s too early for him to be seriously considered for the Euros as he has only played a handful of games. It doesn’t protect the young lad as sometimes things like this can damage young players and their capacity to grow and understand the game. Of course, Manchester United is a beast and it’s the best platform to jump into the national team straightaway, but it’s not that easy.

“We’ve seen what those things have done to the likes of Marcus Rashford, for example. When you are raising the roof at that age, it’s not easy to maintain that level because you have tremendous competition and pressure, so Kobbie has to take it step by step.”

Paris Saint-Germain are said to be once again interested in Marcus Rashford and reportedly want the England International to be a potential replacement for Kylian Mbappé who could move to Real Madrid this summer. Can you ever envision this move coming to fruition and do you believe Marcus could benefit from a move abroad considering the negative press he’s received in the UK in recent times?

“We have seen English players be hounded by the media in the past, but I don’t believe Marcus falls into the same category because he’s criticised due to his performances and his mistakes. 

“When he’s doing well and playing out of his skin, then he’s doing nothing wrong, but when you’re caught going out when you’re not supposed to, then that’s your own fault. You have to understand that you represent your club and your country. Marcus is a huge name and he’s going to receive a lot of press attention and that’s a challenge in itself. Going abroad to PSG may change the parameters, but he will still be under massive pressure there too. 

“Kylian Mbappé also said something similar in a recent interview about the pressure he is currently under in Ligue 1, claiming that certain people don’t like him because he’s doing this and that and he said that he’s under so much scrutiny in Paris. However, moving to Real Madrid won’t change anything for him because the pressure at both PSG and Real Madrid is enormous. 

“When you’re such a big player, and I say this with no disrespect intended, but you’re not going to go to Monaco where there are fewer fans in the stands and play under less pressure. If Marcus leaves Manchester United, it will only be to another massive club with huge expectations. He will have to remain very focused and the pressure will still be there so I don’t think that a move to PSG is something that will happen in the future for Marcus.

“It would make sense if Kylian leaves but I don’t think it will change anything for him in terms of the scrutiny he will be under. He has to improve his game, score more goals and do more because he can and that’s it.” 

According to reports in Portugal, Manchester United captain Bruno Fernandes turned down a move to Saudi Arabia in the January transfer window. Do you believe Fernandes will see out his career at Manchester United in your personal opinion or do you believe any player would be tempted by the riches that Saudi clubs are prepared to offer players?

“I think it’s obvious that Bruno Fernandes loves Manchester United. I don’t think he’s the type of guy that’s prepared to move for huge salaries or anything like this. Some players would consider this move when they can’t move or run as well as they once could, but Fernandes is one of the fittest and most committed players around and for that reason, I don’t see a move to Saudi happening for him.”

“He may consider it in a few years time, but he has too much to offer right now. The Saudi league has ambitions to be one of the best leagues in world football, so it’s obvious why Bruno Fernandes may be a target for them. He’s a very old school footballer that leaves everything out on the pitch and you can never doubt his commitment and that’s something that I love to see.  

“Without sounding contradictory, Jordan Henderson shares Bruno’s passion and commitment and he did make the move to Saudi, so nobody knows what can happen. Bruno Fernandes however would have unfinished business at Manchester United if he leaves now. The team is currently going in the right direction so it would be a pity if Bruno doesn’t win another trophy at Manchester United. It would make no sense to me if he left.”

According to Teamtalk, Manchester United are better placed to sign Ivan Toney than other Premier League clubs interested in the Brentford striker. Do you believe Ivan is an elite level forward that would vastly improve this Manchester United side?

“I think he’s a terrific player. He’s a very confident lad and I’ve heard stories about how impressive and committed he was in the England camp when he was receiving his first few call-ups, so I’m sure he would walk into Carrington with the same level of confidence.

“Those types of characters have energy, that’s for sure, because they have that confidence and give it to the other players in the squad. He’s a very unselfish striker, so for me, he has the class and capability to still improve and has that fire in his belly after his period out suspended. 

“I have no doubt that he would have an impact because he has the same fire as Rasmus [Højlund] and he definitely wants to make a point. He’s got a good level of experience in the Premier League, so it makes sense why the club would be interested in signing him and if he’s shown signs that he prefers to play for Manchester United because of their history and style of football, then this is a brilliant combination.”

 

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