New era at Man United begins with a loss. Man City wins to close gap to Liverpool

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The week started at Manchester United with Jim Ratcliffe completing his purchase of a minority stake and setting out a three-year plan to return the club to the top of English soccer, knocking local rivals Manchester City and Liverpool “off their perch” in the process.

It ended with the team getting mostly outplayed in its own stadium by Fulham — an opponent in the bottom half of the standings — and beaten 2-1 to lose ground in the race for Champions League qualification.

Not only did sixth-place United’s four-game winning run in the league come to an end on Saturday, fourth-place Aston Villa beat Nottingham Forest 4-2. That left an eight-point gap between Villa and United after 26 of 38 games.

It remains to be seen if the Premier League will have four or five places in next season’s Champions League. Fifth-place Tottenham is three points ahead of United and has a game in hand.

Failing to qualify for the lucrative competition will be a huge blow to United’s status, not to mention its finances. It could also spell the end for United manager Erik ten Hag as Ratcliffe looks to raise the standards at the fallen giant.

Dave Brailsford, the sporting director of Ratcliffe-owned INEOS and now a member of United’s board, was in the directors’ box at Old Trafford to see the team concede the deciding goal on a counterattack in the seventh minute of stoppage time. Alex Iwobi tucked home the finish, sealing Fulham’s first win at Old Trafford since 2003, with United’s players having poured forward seeking a winner after Harry Maguire’s equalizer in the 89th.

“After one defeat, you have to see the bigger picture,” Ten Hag said, “and the bigger picture looks very good.”

Douglas Luiz scored two of Villa’s goals, with Ollie Watkins and Leon Bailey also netting in its first home win of 2024. One of the three defeats at Villa Park this year came at the hands of United.

“If we arrive to game 33 in the same position, we maybe look to Champions League,” Villa manager Unai Emery said. “For now it is about being in the top seven positions.

MAN CITY WINS

Second-place City trimmed the gap to Liverpool to one point in the title race by beating Bournemouth 1-0, with Phil Foden grabbing the 24th-minute winner from a rebound after Erling Haaland had a shot parried out.

Arsenal will look to follow suit when Mikel Arteta’s team, which is four points behind City in third place, hosts Newcastle later Saturday.

It was Foden’s 16th goal of the season in all competitions, already tying his most in a single season.

EVERTON DENIED

Relegation-threatened Everton conceded an equalizer in the fifth minute of stoppage time to draw 1-1 at Brighton. A victory would have pushed Everton three points clear of the bottom three and ended an eight-match winless run in the league.

Instead, Lewis Dunk headed in Pascal Gross’ cross to cancel out Jarrad Branthwaite’s opener for Everton at Amex Stadium.

Newly hired Crystal Palace manager Oliver Glasner ’s tenure got off to strong start as his team beat next-to-last Burnley 3-0.

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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

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