Ten Hag hails Man United's 'fight and spirit' after entering title race with derby win

United defeated Manchester City 2-1 at Old Trafford to move within a point of their second-placed rivals

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Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag hailed his squad's resilience and "spirit" after fighting back to defeat rivals Manchester City and emerging as Premier League title contenders.

Substitute Jack Grealish put City ahead on the hour mark at Old Trafford, but a well-taken, and contentious, equaliser from Bruno Fernandes and a tap-in winner from Marcus Rashford earned United a victory that moves them one point behind second-placed City in the table.

"I think we have seen it all in this process there is fight and spirit in this team," Ten Hag said. "They can deal with setbacks. There was a difficult stage of the game but we came stronger and stronger.

"The first 30 minutes after half-time were really difficult for us. They were finding players between the lines like Kyle Walker especially. It was difficult and we could not deal with it the whole time but there's also something about the spirit. We keep believing in a good result, that is what the team did and I have to value that. It was a good performance in an important game."

Rashford's match-winning goal extended the 25-year-old forward's fine run of form: the England international has scored in seven successive games for United ― eight goals in total ― to take his tally to 16 in all competitions.

"I'm really happy, of course, with his performance," Ten Hag said. "He believes once again, he keeps going, he will always get his moment. In the first half, he had a one-on-one with the goalie and one really good situation and more came off disappointed he hadn't scored. But then he scored!

"Players have to be resilient, you get kicked in a game and obviously it happened. It hurts but you have to keep going and you have to do it to get the right result, the right performance. Fight and deal with that, even if it keeps on being painful. You have to contribute to the game. You have to deal with it. He did today and got rewarded for it, the team got rewarded for it."

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Before Rashford grabbed the winner, the key turning point in the match occurred four minutes earlier and also involved the England forward. Casemiro threaded a through-pass into the path of an offside Rashford who let the ball run to Fernandes and the Portuguese midfielder curled in the equaliser.

The goal was initially ruled out by the assistant referee but a VAR check deemed Rashford was not interfering with play and the decision was overturned. Pep Guardiola was convinced the goal should not have been given, and while Ten Hag understood the City manager's frustration, the Dutchman believes the right call was made.

"If you are the opposition, I can see the team are unhappy with this situation but Bruno was scoring from the back and not in an offside position," he said. "Of course, he brings hesitation from the centre-halves, to the opposition, and we take advantage. It's a difficult situation. It's a grey area.

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag celebrates Marcus Rashford's goal against Manchester City. AP

"But, when you see back the approach, Bruno was in an onside position and he scored. I can see on the other side - it confused the backline, it's clear but, also, that's the rule. I would not be happy when my team, as well, concede a goal like this so I can see the disappointment on the other side but I can see the other side as well."

Five straight wins have moved United to within a point of City and five of leaders Arsenal, who face rivals Tottenham on Sunday aiming to stretch their lead to eight points. But Ten Hag insisted there are no thoughts about a title challenge as the focus remains on "game by game".

"We think about Crystal Palace and the next game," he said. "We have to go celebrate for 24 hours and then we go to Palace and we have to prepare, the team has to prepare themselves and get the energy and the right focus. It is all about that. We have to train. I have to prepare the team for the next battle."

Updated: January 15, 2023, 4:50 AM