Festive fixtures will reveal if Man United are for real

MANCHESTER, England — Sir Alex Ferguson used to say the key to the title race was to stay in touch with the leaders until Christmas and then win it in the second half of the season. For the first time since Ferguson retired in 2013, Manchester United have done the first bit. A frantic 6-2 win over Leeds United at Old Trafford on Sunday means that on Christmas Day this year, United will be third in the table, five points behind leaders Liverpool with a game in hand.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is not the type to get carried away, but for the first time in a long time, United have at least made sure they are part of the conversation. What comes next is the hard part, and the trip to Leicester City on Boxing Day and Wolverhampton Wanderers’ visit three days later will reveal whether they are the real deal.

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“We’re one third into the season — we’re not even at the halfway point,” said Solskjaer, who celebrated two years in charge on Saturday. “The league position isn’t even something we’re looking at. Our fans needed that one; they should have been here. Our players will go home tonight and sleep well. I think they have worked hard enough and deserve maybe a lie-in.

“That was fantastic from the first minute. We had a plan to get after them. We found a way of getting them going. Just imagine if that had 75,000 people here, that would have gone down as one of the best Man United performances against Leeds at home.”

At the very least, Solskjaer can point to tangible progress.

On Christmas Day last year, United had just lost at Watford to slump to eighth in the table, 24 points behind Liverpool. Their highest league finish post-Ferguson was second under Jose Mourinho in 2017-18, but on Christmas Day that season they were already 13 points adrift of eventual champions Manchester City. Titles are not won or lost in the first half of the season, and United have given themselves a chance.

After the matches against Leicester and Wolves in between Christmas and new year, Solskjaer’s team travel to Anfield to face Liverpool on Jan. 17, which could, by then, be arguably United’s biggest league game since Ferguson departed more than seven years ago.

There are significant challenges to overcome before then, but there is plenty for Solskjaer to be thankful for this holiday season. United top the form chart having taken 19 points from the past 21 available. Against Leeds, they addressed two significant issues of failing to start games quickly and a worrying run of home results by scoring twice inside the opening three minutes and scoring six in a league game for the first time since the 8-2 win over Arsenal in 2011.

Solskjaer admitted in the build-up to the first league meeting with Leeds since 2004 that Marcelo Bielsa’s cavalier style might suit his team’s strengths, and after the way United raced into a 4-0 lead 10 minutes before half-time, it was hard to argue. It was a day when almost everything went right.

Scott McTominay, picked in midfield ahead of Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek, became the first player to score a Premier League brace inside the opening three minutes. Bruno Fernandes and Victor Lindelof made it 4-0 after 37 minutes before Liam Cooper got one back for the visitors. Daniel James, a surprise choice to make his first start since October, got his first league goal since August 2019 shortly after half-time and Fernandes got his second from the penalty spot after Anthony Martial was brought down. Stuart Dallas’ got Leeds’ second on 73 minutes and they would have had more but for a string of fine saves from David De Gea.

That the game ended with eight goals, 43 shots and 24 corners was a fair summary of a chaotic 90 minutes. Maybe Solskjaer had shown his players Louis van Gaal’s comment that “all they did was defend with 10 men” in the Manchester derby. After scoring six against Leeds for only the second time in their history, United have got 28 league goals this season — bettered only by Liverpool and nine more than at the same stage last season.

Aside from some questionable defending, Solskjaer’s only concern at full-time was injuries that forced off McTominay and Luke Shaw.

“You have to earn the right to win it, and it should have, could have, been 12-4,” Solskjaer said. “You know it’s going to be frantic, hectic against them, because no matter what the result is they have a certain style. We showed we are getting a fitter or stronger team. I’m seeing more and more of a Manchester United team I like. I’ve really enjoyed the two years and really enjoyed today. We want a fit team to go to the end and they’ve proven that lately. There are details to work on and we’ll keep improving.”

Prove it against Leicester, and even Solskjaer will find it hard to play down United’s title chances.

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