Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United face crucial test of title credentials at Liverpool

A surge from 15th to second and a haul of 23 points from nine games have helped change perceptions of Norwegian's reign

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is still deflecting questions, but the questions have changed. At the start of November, he was asked if his players would get him the sack. By the end of December, the queries were if Manchester United are in a title race.

A surge from 15th to second and a haul of 23 points from nine unbeaten games have changed perceptions, a season and, perhaps, a regime. Solskjaer no longer has to worry about the threat of Mauricio Pochettino, his supposed successor instead destined for Paris Saint-Germain.

The man mocked for his slender managerial CV could do something that the Champions League winners Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho did not and at least take United close to a 21st league title.

They finished second in 2018, but it was a distant second, 19 points behind Manchester City. They have not mustered a true title challenge since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.

Fresh from scoring Tuesday's injury-time winner against Wolves, Marcus Rashford said it would be "stupid" to look at the table. Solskjaer pronounced his own answer "boring". United had only played 15 games, he noted. "Get to 30 and then maybe we can start talking about a title race, when you get to March or April," he said.

If caution feels advisable, given the topsy-turvy nature of Solskjaer's reign, when United have veered in and out of brilliant runs and awful spells, their season may give additional reasons to postpone a verdict. It is not merely that United have lost 6-1 at home; the last time they did that, in 2011/12, only an injury-time goal deprived them of the title.

It is the illogical nature of it. Most title tilts are built on home form. Take out the 6-2 thrashing of Leeds and United have only scored four goals, two of them penalties. Their away record is contrastingly brilliant, with 19 points from 21 and 21 goals, but they are yet to visit any of the big six.

David de Gea made a brilliant save against Wolves but United conceded two goals in each of their three previous games. Titles tend to be won by teams with either the best or second-best defensive record and, while United’s statistics may feel distorted by their 6-1 thrashing by Tottenham when they were reduced to 10 men, only six sides have let in more goals.

Not every champion team ticks every box. Liverpool triumphed last year even though their centre-forward, Roberto Firmino, did not score at Anfield until the final home game.

Now United’s No 9, Anthony Martial, has a solitary league goal. Their biggest summer signing, Donny van de Beek, has been limited to two league starts. This is not a conventional formula for glory.

And yet their charge up the table reflects on two catalysts. Rashford may not yet be clinical but he has acquired the substance to carry on making telling contributions.

Bruno Fernandes is arguably the Premier League’s player of 2020. His time in the division has brought 18 wins and just three defeats, yielding 62 points from 29 games.

His personal contribution extends to 18 goals and 14 assists, the latest the raking, cross-field ball for Rashford on Tuesday. He is the game-changer: in individual matches and in the context of campaigns.

United's next away league game represents the biggest test of their credentials: it is away at Anfield, and it was Mourinho's last stand as he was sacked after Liverpool recorded 36 shots in a 3-1 win.

Solskjaer is safe from the same fate now but in a season when Leicester, Everton, Aston Villa, Southampton, Tottenham and Chelsea have all been in the top two, it could determine if United will prove Liverpool’s closest challengers.


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