Eric Bailly exclusive: 'Happy to be back playing' for Manchester United as defender prepares for milestone match at Chelsea

The Ivorian defender hopes the Premier League side can maintain their encouraging form, starting on Sunday at Stamford Bridge.

Benfica's Eduardo Salvio, right, challenges for the ball with Manchester United's Eric Bailly during the Champions League group A soccer match between Manchester United and Benfica, at Old Trafford, in Manchester, England, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017. (AP Photo/Dave Thompson)
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There was a moment in Manchester United's narrow victory over Tottenham Hotspur last Saturday when Eric Bailly, back from not playing for four games, showed his spirit.

The Ivorian slid along the touchline in an attempt to keep the ball in. He narrowly failed and was still on the ground when Tottenham took a quick throw-in.


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Bailly, now in his second season at Old Trafford, dragged himself up and jumped in the improbable hope of heading the ball.

He succeeded and the ball went to a United player, evidence of some of the excellent defending on a day when the attackers struggled.

United’s No 3 played again on Tuesday against Benfica as United made it four wins from four in the Uefa Champions League.

A poor back pass from Bailly in the 64th minute, when the score was still 1-0, saw Jimenez nip forward, win the ball and hit the post when he should have scored.

Bailly needs to make fewer errors, but he’s still only 23 and Jose Mourinho considers him a defender of enormous talent.

United are better with him, too for the only two games he has not featured in the squad were in the draw at Liverpool and the defeat at Huddersfield Town.

Paul Pogba has also been missed by United in the last month, but that return of his close friend Bailly has been a plus.

"I'm happy to be back playing," he told The National after Tuesday's win against Benfica. "That was a tough game to play tonight.

"I know Benfica are in a bad moment, but they’re still hard to play against, with skillful, technical, fast, players.

"We worked hard to beat them and to pass from the group stage. It means we can concentrate on the league now and we have some big games coming up. I plan to rest a little with family and then we’ll be preparing for the game against Chelsea.”

Bailly maintains that the mood is upbeat among the United players. “Very good,” he states. “We have faith in the manager and great players around the team.”

Mourinho rated him enough to make him his first United signing from Villarreal for a £30 million (Dh145.8m) fee in the summer of 2016, even though he knew he would be absent during the African Cup of Nations the following winter.

Mourinho is not impressed if Bailly returns from international duty late because of delays. That holds true of how he is with every player because be wants his players with him as much as possible.

Bailly will be key at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, where United were hammered 4-0 in the league last season and eliminated from the FA Cup.

Bailly was the only United defender who played well in the defeat and was missed when he was taken off with a knee injury after 52 minutes. He did not get off the bench in the FA Cup match.

Sunday will be a milestone, too. Bailly’s now played 47 games for United, the same as he played for Villarreal.

Add in the five first team games for a then cash-strapped Espanyol and the Benfica match was his 99th game in top-flight club football. Ryan Giggs, at the same age, had played 250.

Bailly is happy at United, content to play in a two or three man central defence, one which has not conceded a single goal in seven home matches in the Premier League and Champions League.

With new signing Victor Lindelof still adjusting to the Premier League, Bailly is needed, but he made such a positive impression in his first season that Nemanja Vidic singled him out for praise.

The retired Serbian defender, who played for United between 2006 and 2014, said: “He’s aggressive, he has potential, he’s young, he likes to defend. He has the qualities to go even further.”

United are going further in the Champions League and with Bailly settled in south Manchester and trying to learn English, despite Pogba speaking to him in French and the Spanish speakers in Spanish, the man spotted in a trial match in Africa is an important part of the squad striving for stability and improvement.

He has just been nominated on the 30 man shortlist for the 2017 African Player of the Year award.

A fine performance at Chelsea on Sunday will do him no harm with the voters.