By Robert O'Connor, PA
Manchester United moved a step closer to playing in the Champions League next season as Casemiro’s brilliant overhead kick earned a 1-0 win away at Bournemouth.
Victory on the south coast, together with Liverpool’s failure to beat Aston Villa, strengthened United’s grip on a top-four spot with two games to play and meant Erik ten Hag is close to achieving his primary objective in his first season in charge.
This was not Ten Hag’s side at their best, but once they were in front they limited a spirited and organised Bournemouth to a handful of chances, with David de Gea in form to deny Gary O’Neil’s side whenever they threatened.
A point against Chelsea at Old Trafford on Thursday will ensure the team go into the final day with the top-four job complete.
United took the lead after nine minutes, partly through good fortune, but the goal owed much to the quick thinking and improvisational brilliance of Casemiro.
Christian Eriksen’s floated ball into the box was flicked on inadvertently by the boot of Marcos Senesi. The defender’s intervention played Casemiro onside and in one movement he swivelled acrobatically and whacked an effort on the turn past Neto to give United the perfect start.
The game settled down, United largely controlling the ball and probing for gaps in behind Bournemouth, most of which were plugged well by O’Neil’s side.
The next real chance fell to Dominic Solanke. A long, reaching pass arrived invitingly at his feet, though the opportunity looked to have gone when Aaron Wan-Bissaka hustled him off the ball. But Solanke would not be deterred and, winning it back, he cut inside United and made space for a low drive which De Gea turned aside brilliantly.
Casemiro tried once again to execute the spectacular when he hit a thumping drive first time from 35 yards which Neto got down well to and held.
On the whole, though, the first half ended with Bournemouth in the ascendency, Solanke reminding United once again of his and his team’s threat by planting a header fractionally over with the last action before the break.
David Brooks, making his first start since being diagnosed with cancer in 2021, tested the reflexes of De Gea minutes after the restart, the goalkeeper throwing up an arm to turn a fizzing drive over the bar.
Brooks was substituted shortly afterwards and left to a standing ovation from the Vitality Stadium.
United were without top scorer Marcus Rashford, out with an unspecified illness after also missing the previous victory against Wolves, and their attack lacked a focal point in his absence.
A goalscorer of Rashford’s instincts might have brought Bournemouth an equaliser when Solanke ran the ball to the byline and sent over a cross that rolled inches in front of the goal. No one in red and black had kept pace with the forward and the ball drifted to safety.
Illya Zabarnyi was in the right spot at the right time to turn Bruno Fernandes’ first-time effort over the bar from Wan-Bissaka’s cut-back as United probed for a second.
Fernandes stung the palms of Neto with a volley from outside the box, the keeper requiring two strong palms to beat it away.
Dango Ouattara came off the bench and caused problems down United’s left, bursting past Luke Shaw and crossing one moment, linking up well with Solanke the next. If Bournemouth were going to find a way back, it looked likely that it would be via the substitute.
Instead it was another of O’Neil’s replacements, Kieffer Moore, that spurned the hosts’ best chance.
Moore’s movement was clever to run in behind, but, with only De Gea to beat, his shot was straight at the keeper, who saved with his leg.
United hearts were in mouths when Senesi volleyed on to the roof of the goal in added time.
But the visitors saw the job out and one more point will ensure Ten Hag can turn attentions to an FA Cup final meeting with Manchester City at Wembley.