EPL

Ronaldo to return at Everton as Rangnick warns Man Utd in top-four race

By Sports Desk April 08, 2022

Ralf Rangnick confirmed Cristiano Ronaldo will return against Everton on Saturday, while insisting Manchester United cannot afford to drop any more points in the top-four race.

United are languishing in seventh in the Premier League after limping to a 1-1 draw at home to Leicester City last Saturday, sitting three points behind fourth-placed Tottenham, who have played a game fewer.

Arsenal are level on points with their London rivals, having played two games fewer than United, whose 2021-22 hopes rely on Champions League qualification after failure in the cup competitions.

That has led to questions over the capabilities of Rangnick, the identity of his next permanent successor, and the future of numerous United stars, with Paul Pogba and Ronaldo both scrutinised.

The Portugal captain missed the Leicester game and Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher, joined by Wayne Rooney, labelled Ronaldo's return as a mistake.

The former Real Madrid man will hope to prove his doubters wrong when the Red Devils on Saturday head to Merseyside, where Rangnick reminded his team they cannot drop points if they want to qualify for UEFA's flagship club competition.

"Cristiano is back again. Luke [Shaw] is still injured. He will be out for the next two or three weeks," Rangnick told reporters at Friday's pre-match news conference.

"[Edinson] Cavani is still injured, [Raphael] Varane is still injured and the same is true with [Scott] McTominay I'm afraid."

Asked if the game was must win, he added: "That happens in football [big teams struggling], not only England but in other leagues. But for us again, it's about being aware about the current situation.

"We still have a chance to qualify for the Champions League, but in order to do that we need to win and we definitely need to win the game tomorrow.

"If you look at the current situation in the table, we can't afford to drop points anymore and I think everybody in the team and the squad is aware of that."

Rangnick has, even if unspectacularly, steadied the ship for United, with only Manchester City and Liverpool (one each) losing fewer Premier League games than United, who have been defeated just twice in 16 league games since the German's appointment in December.

United have won half of those top-flight games but Rangnick knows he must strike a balance between attack and defence in the coming weeks if his side are to compete.

"It's got to do with the kind of players we have available. As you know, we have quite a few strikers missing in the last couple of weeks and months," he continued on the make-up of his team.

"In the game against Leicester, on top of that, we had Ronaldo not available, that's one reason. The other reason is the focus. In the first couple of weeks, we put our focus on being more stable defensively and conceding not that many goals, which we did.

"At one stage, we also found out then that we needed a plan out of possession of the ball to create chances ourselves. Right now, it's about getting both parts together."

While Rangnick called on his side to construct a complete performance, he acknowledged he was pleased with some developments, but now he wants to see consistency.

"I was not surprised. I knew that from the start," Rangnick said of the quality at United. "When you see the whole process over the last four and a half months, I think we have developed the team in some areas, but as you've said, it's all about being consistent and consistency.

"This is what we have to start. We have to start tomorrow with the best possible performance."

Ajax's Erik ten Hag has reportedly agreed to talks with United to become their next permanent manager, with Paris Saint-Germain's Mauricio Pochettino also linked, but Rangnick refused to provide any insight on the next appointment as he looked ahead to his consultancy role when his short-term contract expires at the end of the season.

"From what I know, all the managers with whom the club have so far spoken are top managers, top coaches," he added. "If this includes Erik ten Hag, then it's also true with him. That's all I can say at this stage.

"As you know, we have agreed upon a consultancy contract as an advisor and we will speak about that in the next couple of weeks I'm pretty sure – at the latest, the end of the season. But again, my focus is on tomorrow."

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    PLAYERS TO WATCH 

    Austria – Marcel Sabitzer

    Sabitzer was involved in six goals in seven appearances during Euro 2024 qualifying (four goals, two assists), the most of any Austria player.

    The Borussia Dortmund man also created the most big chances (four) and accumulated the highest expected assists figure (1.6 xA) of any Austrian.

    France – Kylian Mbappe 

    Across the last three major international tournaments (2018 World Cup, Euro 2020 and 2022 World Cup), Mbappe has scored 12 goals. Harry Kane is the only European player to match that tally.

    However, all of those goals have come at World Cups. He failed to convert any of his 14 shots at Euro 2020 and also missed the decisive spot-kick as France lost to Switzerland on penalties. He will be desperate to atone at this tournament, starting on Monday.

    MATCH PREDICTION – FRANCE WIN

    France enter Euro 2024 as one of the favourites, with the Opta supercomputer giving them a 19.1 per cent chance of lifting the trophy before the tournament began. They are expected to live up to that billing here.

    Les Bleus have reached the final at three of their last four major tournaments, being losing finalists at Euro 2016 and the 2022 World Cup and winning the 2018 World Cup.

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    With the likes of Ousmane Dembele, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann – who has 18 goal contributions at major tournaments since the start of Euro 2016 (11 goals, seven assists) – supporting Mbappe, they should have too much for Austria.

    Austria have only won one of their last 10 matches against France in all competitions (two draws, seven defeats), triumphing 3-1 in a 2010 World Cup qualifier in September 2008.

    The teams have, however, managed one win apiece from their two previous tournament meetings. Austria claimed a 3-2 victory at the 1934 World Cup, and France won 1-0 at the 1982 competition.

    OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

    Austria – 15.5% 

    France – 65.8%

    Draw – 18.7%

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