Manchester United captain Nemanja Vidic contradicted manager David Moyes by saying the reigning champions could no longer win the Premier League title this season following their defeat by Chelsea.
Sunday’s 3-1 loss at Stamford Bridge left United a huge 14 points behind leaders Arsenal with just 16 games of the season remaining.
Chelsea striker Samuel Eto’o scored a hat-trick to exposed United’s defensive frailties and the defeat was compounded for the visitors when Vidic was sent off late on for a rash challenge on Eden Hazard.
Asked if United were now too far adrift of Arsenal to retain their title, centre-back Vidic told Sky Sports: “Yes, I think so now we are too far behind. We have to focus now to get in the top three, top four. We have to be positive.”
Of more immediate concern for United is that they are six points adrift of the top four, with the once unthinkable prospect of failing to qualify for the Champions League now a possibility.
“It’s not going to be easy but we have to now fight for different things,” said Vidic.
“We have to focus on the (League) Cup and the Champions League. It’s never easy but we have to stay positive, we have to stick together, we have to work hard to change the things around.
“Hopefully we can play better football and with a bit of luck I think we can achieve that.” By contrast, a defiant Moyes — in his first season as United manager since succeeding the retired Alex Ferguson — insisted after Sunday’s match that he would not “throw the towel in”.
“What we won’t do is throw the towel in until we can’t get there,” said Moyes, whose side replied through Javier Hernandez. “The job’s to try and finish first and we’ll keep trying to do that. There’s no clever answers except, ‘Try and win the next game.’
“I think before today (Sunday), we came into it and we’d lost one game in the league in six — not a bad run. “And I didn’t think there was a big difference in the teams today, I didn’t at all. The difference was two set-pieces and nothing else.”
United have now been beaten seven times in the league, having lost five games or fewer in each of the past three seasons, but Moyes said that he did not feel under any added pressure.
Asked how his confidence was holding up, the former Everton manager replied: “Fine. It’s a difficult task, but perseverance, keep doing what’s right — I thought we did a lot of good things today.
“We’ve got players to come back and this is a project where I know I’m going to improve as it goes along. There will be changes as we go along on the journey and I’m looking forward to it.”
“It’s a massive challenge. I hoped I would be in a far better position than this, but I’m not, so the challenge is there for me. I think if you’re a football person, it’s a great one to have.”
Moyes was once again without injured first-choice strike pair Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, and when asked if they would return to training on Monday, he would only reply: “I hope so.”
United finished the game with 10 men after Vidic was sent off for chopping Hazard, while Rafael da Silva was booked for a wild foul on Gary Cahill.
Vidic, reflecting on his red card, said: “I think it was a bit harsh because I went for the ball. Hazard is a sharp player, he just pushed the ball.”
Moyes added: “I think when players are frustrated, and it happens also to my players, things like this can happen.”