LONDON: Manchester United are top of the Premier League table with nearly half the season gone but are they title contenders or mere pretenders? Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men beat Burnley 1-0 at Turf Moor on Tuesday courtesy of a Paul Pogba goal to move three points clear of champions Liverpool after 17 games.
It was the first time United had ended the day top of the table so far into the season since their last title-winning campaign in 2012/13 under Alex Ferguson. AFP Sport looks at whether United can win their first top-flight title for eight years as they prepare to travel to Anfield on Sunday.
Manchester United’s success in the transfer market has been more miss than hit since Ferguson guided them to a 20th top-flight title. But a glance at the substitutes’ bench at Turf Moor shows Solskjaer has quietly put together a powerful squad that gives him enviable options.
The Norwegian started with Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Bruno Fernandes in midfield, with in-form Scott McTominay, Fred and Donny van de Beek on the bench. Edinson Cavani was back as the focal point in attack after a three-match ban, with academy graduate Mason Greenwood used as a late substitute.
In central defense, Eric Bailly is impressing alongside Harry Maguire, offering United real pace at the back. But it is not just the personnel that catch the eye — there is a palpable sense of togetherness at the club, shown by the players’ wild celebrations when they recently beat Aston Villa 2-1.
Solskjaer — who won six Premier League titles as a player at Old Trafford — has not had an easy ride in charge. Whenever the club have hit a rocky patch the pressure has been ramped up, with suggestions he does not have the experience or nous to go toe to toe with Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola.
An impressive 29 points from a possible 33 show the strength of their revival after a poor start to the campaign but Solskjaer is not getting carried away. “We’re almost halfway through the season so it’s a little bit of an indication of where you’re at,” said the 1999 treble hero. “But no one will remember the league table on the 12th of January.”
Despite their fine run of form, bookmakers still have United as third favorites for the Premier League title, behind Manchester City and Liverpool. Klopp’s men have failed to hit the heights of last season but are still firmly in the title picture despite a defensive injury crisis this term.
United will travel to the home of their fierce rivals with a spring in their step — a far cry from last year, when defeat at Anfield left them 30 points behind the Merseyside outfit. Solskjaer, whose side are unbeaten in domestic away fixtures since losing to Liverpool in January 2020, said United were looking forward to the challenge. “We just want to go there, knowing we’re playing the best team in the country by a mile over the last year and a half,” he said. “They are champions by right and it will be a great test of where we are.”
For their part, City have quietly put together an impressive run to move to within striking distance of the top of the table. They are seven points behind United but have two games in hand and are favorites to win their third title in four seasons.
Former United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, who played alongside Solskjaer at Old Trafford, is not sure his old side are “quite there yet” but believes they are not far away. “If we could add players like (forward Erling) Haaland from Dortmund or (defender Dayot) Upamecano from Leipzig I would say then we would be championship challengers,” he told the BBC. It is up to his ex-teammate to prove him wrong. – AFP