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Aston Villa's Leon Bailey, left, celebrates after scoring his side's fourth goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest at the Villa Park stadium in Birmingham, England, Feb. 24, 2024.Rui Vieira/The Associated Press

The new era at Manchester United got off to a disappointing start as the team lost ground in the race for Champions League qualification with a 2-1 home loss against Fulham on Saturday.

The week started with new co-owner Jim Ratcliffe completing his purchase of a minority stake in United and boldly 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 Erik ten Hag’s side getting mostly outplayed in its own stadium by an opponent in the bottom half of the standings and conceding the deciding goal on a counterattack in the seventh minute of stoppage time.

Not only did sixth-place United’s four-game winning run in the league come to an end, fourth-place Aston Villa beat Nottingham Forest 4-2 and there is now an eight-point gap between the teams after 26 of 38 games. Fifth-place Tottenham is three points ahead of United and has a game in hand.

It remains to be seen if the Premier League will have four or five places in next season’s Champions League. Failing to qualify for the lucrative competition will be a huge blow to United’s status and finances — and could yet spell the end for Ten Hag as Ratcliffe looks to raise the standards at the fallen giant.

Alex Iwobi scored the clinching goal for Fulham as United poured players forward seeking a winner after Harry Maguire’s equalizer in the 89th.

“The team showed big character to fight back,” Ten Hag said. “We deserved the equalizer and went for the win — we showed big personality and character.”

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 for the match.

Douglas Luiz scored two of Villa’s goals, with Ollie Watkins and Leon Bailey also netting in its first home win of 2024.

“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.”

There could be more twists in the title race later Saturday, with second-place City away to Bournemouth and third-place Arsenal hosting Newcastle. City is four points behind Liverpool and Arsenal is a further point back.

In other results, relegation-threatened Everton conceded an equalizer in the fifth minute of stoppage time to draw 1-1 at Brighton and 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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