Football

Beware, Red Devils are on the up

Mourinho wants United to capitalise on momentum and make a charge in second half of season

EPL
WEST BROM MAN UTD

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is targeting the second half of the season to build on the team's recent improvement and launch a serious Premier League challenge.

United seem to be finding a groove and are now unbeaten in nine games in all competitions and within three points of fifth-placed Tottenham.

Although handicapped by a series of early draws, they improved their prospects with successive victories over Spurs and Crystal Palace and will make up further ground if they win at West Brom tomorrow morning (Singapore time).

"Halfway through the race is not until Dec 31, and I would say for the first half of the race, it would be almost impossible to be in the top four," Mourinho said yesterday.

"But, one thing is to be 15 points from the top four, another is to be five points from the top four.

"What we have to try to do in these three remaining matches (in December) is be in a position that gives us a chance in the second part of the season.

"We are playing really well. If we can transform performances into results, we have a chance."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been in outstanding form and has scored eight goals in eight games, including the late winner at Crystal Palace on Wednesday.

The Swede veteran believes the club's luck has finally turned.

"We are working hard, we have confidence and we believe in what we are doing," said Ibrahimovic, whose match-winner against Palace took his tally to 14 goals in 24 appearances.

"At the moment, we work very hard for it and we will keep focused. We have always had the belief and we keep getting more confidence from recent games.

"We all put in the hard work. Sometimes you hit the top and don't get the winner, like in the last couple of weeks.

"We have been disappointed in some games, so let's keep going like this and get the three points (against West Brom) that we need to get closer to the top."

"Now we have closed the gap even more and we have to keep going like this."

"He is doing phenomenal," Mourinho said of the 35-year-old striker.

"Tomorrow is a last effort, then a week without football.

"They need it, especially him. In some positions, you can protect yourself. As a striker, it is impossible to hide."

After tomorrow morning's game, United do not play again until Boxing Day, and have home matches that week against strugglers Sunderland and Middlesbrough.

Looking beyond that, Mourinho said he is not desperate to sign anyone in the January transfer window.

"I like my squad, I trust my squad," he said.

England defender Chris Smalling is back in contention for the first time since the end of October and, although Eric Bailly cannot play against West Brom, his injury is not serious.

Meanwhile, Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo have escaped retrospective punishment from the Football Association after incidents in United's victory at Palace.

Referee Craig Pawson gave Rojo a yellow card for his aggressive, two-footed lunge at Wilfried Zaha during the first half at Selhurst Park.

Many observers considered that to be too lenient for such a dangerous tackle, but the FA cannot increase the punishment for offences which have been seen and dealt with by the match officials.

Ibrahimovic's apparent elbow to the face of Yohan Cabaye, however, could have been sanctioned by the FA, as it was not seen at the time.

But, as is standard in these cases, footage of the second-half incident was sent to three former elite referees who reviewed it independently of each other.

For the FA to take action, the referees must be unanimous on the need for a retrospective red card and, in this case, they did not agree. - WIRE SERVICES

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