Premier League

Hangeland eyeing top-10 finish

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Tue, 02 Apr 2013 15:46:00

Fulham boss Martin Jol believes they have ended any lingering relegation fears after moving on to 39 points.

The Cottagers overcame Queens Park Rangers on Monday night to maintain their place in 10th spot in the table to move them nine points clear of the drop zone.

Jol is keen to build on their recent good run of form and end the season well by securing a top-half finish.

"Everyone tells me that in England 39/40 points will do and I have worked here for five or six seasons and in one or two seasons 37/38 poins was enough and we have got 39 points now and hopefully we will be fine, but in this league you never know," Jol told Sky Sports News.

"We have got 39 points now so hopefully we can look up now and get as high as possible."

Jol admits he feared Fulham might struggle this season after losing a number of key performers in the summer and feels being clear of relegation at this stage of the campaign is a major achievement for the club.

"We lost [Clint] Dempsey, [Mousa] Dembele, Danny Murphy and I thought it could be a difficult season for us but in the first week in April to be on 39 points I think is fantastic," added Jol.

The France international is on course to secure a fifth Premier League title with United, but remains without a victory in the FA Cup following holders Chelsea's 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge on Easter Monday.

"We were really sad to lose in the Champions League - this game hurt us a lot when we lost against (Real) Madrid," Evra, who moved to Old Trafford in January 2006, told ITV.

"We really wanted to win the double and for a lot of players, even myself, we haven't won the FA Cup. It was an important trophy."

A spectacular Demba Ba strike secured Chelsea a semi-final berth against Manchester City and extended United's wait for a first FA Cup triumph since 2004.

City are United's next opponents in the Premier League, next Monday.

Victory for United at Old Trafford against their second-placed rivals and the defending Premier League champions would enhance their lead to a near-unassailable 18 points with seven matches remaining.

Evra added: "Now we're going to focus on the league. It's nearly done. We have to win a few games."

Following the Champions League and FA Cup exits, United's sole focus is the league.

The prospect of a first double since the 1999 treble-winning season was near after 11 minutes of the original quarter-final tie with Chelsea last month.

United showed no signs of rustiness following the Madrid loss the previous Tuesday as goals from Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney saw them accelerate to a two-goal lead, but Chelsea responded to force the replay.

Evra believes the Old Trafford clash is where United conceded the tie.

"It's a big disappointment," he said.

"I think we lost it on the first leg (game). We have to be realistic. We gave the game away.

"We were winning 2-0. they came back and we drew 2-2.

"After that we said 'okay, we get another chance to win at Stamford Bridge'.

"But they deserve to qualify and it's a massive disappointment for us and for the club."

Striker Wayne Rooney was again absent for United with a groin injury picked up on international duty with England.

Manager Sir Alex Ferguson expects Rooney to return to face City.

The Stamford Bridge defeat will linger in the memory for Evra's fellow defender Chris Smalling, whose focus now turns to claiming derby success.

"At the start of the day, we saw this replay as a new challenge and a fresh start so you can't think about the lead in the first match and what might have been," Smalling told MUTV.

"We need to make sure that we remember this defeat next season and not let it slip again.

"It will take a couple of days to get over this because a lot of us came into it with great confidence and we felt we were going to win this game.

"At least we have a good game next Monday but we need to make sure that we rally together and win this title with aplomb."

The Blues remain on course for a fifth FA Cup win in seven seasons after Ba's second-half strike earned a 1-0 quarter-final replay win over Manchester United and set up a last-four Wembley clash with 2011 winners Manchester City on April 14.

Chelsea interim boss Rafael Benitez afterwards admitted a top-four place in the Barclays Premier League is the over-riding priority this term - the consequences of missing out on Champions League football could be cataclysmic for the 2012 European Cup winners - but Ba wants to win the first trophy of his career too.

The 27-year-old January signing from Newcastle said: "The Champions League is very important, but we want to win some trophies as well.

"We know that we are doing very well in two competitions, the FA Cup and Europa League, and we're going to do everything to win them both.

"I've not yet won a trophy. I'm looking for it and I'm looking forward to the semi-final.

"We're going to play against one of the best teams in the country (City), and it's going to be a tough one. But we will go there to win."

Ba scored his fifth Chelsea goal in the win, acrobatically volleying in a lofted pass from Juan Mata.

The Senegal striker is ineligible for Chelsea's next game - the third of six in 16 days - against Rubin Kazan in the Europa League quarter-finals on Thursday.

Goalkeeper Petr Cech, who, like Ba, made a crucial intervention against United, is eager to back up the win against the Russians.

"It's always important to beat big teams for the confidence," Cech told chelseafc.com.

"We wanted to book a place at Wembley. We seem to have a special relationship with the FA Cup; we treat it with respect, every season we try to win it and we get something back.

"We have another tough game against City but it's a semi-final so you expect a tough game.

"We are not having such a fantastic season in terms of the league but it shows we can still beat the top teams and it gives us confidence to play another game on Thursday.

"We have another semi-final to book in the Europa League and hopefully we are going to go through."

Benitez was criticised after making seven changes for the loss to Southampton which saw Chelsea's grip on Champions League qualification slip.

Yet after the win the Spaniard described the Blues' season, which has often been on the verge of full-blown crisis, as "a great season, at the moment. It could be even better".

Benitez will have been thankful for Cech's ability as United thought they had an equaliser, only for the Czech goalkeeper to stick out a left hand to save from Javier Hernandez.

"It was a great cross, fast," added Cech, who believes it was his best save of the campaign.

"I knew he was there and I had to go as fast as I could and take up as much space as I could.

"He headed it the other way and I was quick enough to tip it over with the opposite hand."

Meanwhile, Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, seen as Cech's long-term successor, could return to Stamford Bridge next term, depending on who is appointed permanent Blues boss.

The 20-year-old is currently on a second season-long loan spell at Atletico Madrid, but says the Blues want more time to consider whether to allow him to stay for a third campaign.

Courtois said in Spanish sports daily AS: "My future is unclear, it's the same as I have said in the past few weeks.

"I was hoping that this week I would find out what will happen, but Chelsea have asked for a bit more time, perhaps because they are going to get a new coach.

"I don't know what will happen but I will have to wait a little longer before I find out."

The west Londoners enjoyed a surprisingly good start to the campaign considering the likes of Mousa Dembele, Clint Dempsey and Danny Murphy left for pastures new in the summer.

That initial flourish soon wore off, though, and only a recent upturn in fortunes has prevented Martin Jol's side from being sucked into the relegation battle.

Monday night's 3-2 defeat of QPR means the Cottagers are now unbeaten in five matches and puts them nine points clear of the drop zone, much to Hangeland's relief.

"Hopefully now we can sleep well at night, knowing we will be in the league next year and look up a little bit," the Fulham captain said.

"It is so tight and if it hadn't been for this really good run recently we could have been in trouble, but luckily we seemed to turn the corner after the new year."

Relief was also the overriding emotion following Monday's west London derby as Fulham had to withstand a spirited QPR comeback.

After Dimitar Berbatov's brace and a Clint Hill own goal saw them race ahead, Adel Taarabt struck back on the stroke of half-time and, having seen a penalty saved moments earlier, Loic Remy reduced the deficit further.

Steve Sidwell's late red card resulted in a nervy ending but Fulham held on to make it back-to-back victories.

"I was almost disappointed after the game because we controlled it so well in the first half and controlled it really well," Hangeland said.

"The second half was the complete opposite so it was a bit strange but obviously we're delighted to get the three points.

"They came back just before half-time, which was disappointing, and then we knew it would be a fight in the second half.

"Especially after the sending off we knew it was going to be tough and credit to them, they played really well and made life difficult for us.

"We managed to hang on and we're really happy, so too I imagine are the fans."

Hangeland was impressive at both ends for Fulham last night and produced an exquisite backheel in the build-up to their third goal.

"I found myself far away from my normal position and was delighted to play a part in that goal," he said with a smile.

"Dimitar told me afterwards 'even though we scored, stay back and leave that to me'. He is a funny guy."

It was a fine way for the defender to cap his first match since ending months of speculation over his future by penning a two-year extension at Craven Cottage.

"You would have to ask my agent [if there was other offers] but who cares now," Hangeland said.

"My priority was to stay here. I've enjoyed my time with Fulham and I think there wouldn't have been any better options for me.

"I am very happy. I think everyone knows that.

"I have said many times how much I like it here and to extend my stay was great news and I am really happy to sort it out."

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