Manchester United’s season-defining week: Winless in three, just one goal scored and rivals building up a head of steam… Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men MUST get their title challenge back on track in huge games against Euro hopefuls Southampton and Everton
- Manchester United have seen their title aspirations dented in the last two games
- Defeat tbySheffield United was followed up by a dismal 0-0 away against Arsenal
- Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows he is entering a key week in their title campaign
- Manchester City look in good form and Liverpool have shaken off their rust
- Sportsmail looks at what could be a defining seven days in the Premier League
Sir Matt Busby perfectly summed up the size of the job at Manchester United when asked why he was leaving his position as manager in 1969.
‘United is no longer just a football club,’ Busby said, ‘it is an institution. I feel the demands are beyond one human being.’
Sir Alex Ferguson proved the demands were not beyond him during a richly successful 26 years, winning 13 titles, and now the onus is on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to prove his own super-human credentials by ending the eight-year wait for another.
Manchester United face a huge week in their season after going winless in three league games
Paul Pogba (right) and Co stuttered to a 0-0 at Arsenal and have now fallen adrift of Man City
The title contenders have been squeezed together and all now face a defining run of games
The smiles smacked across the faces of everyone at United after victory at Burnley last month have slipped somewhat having dropped points in three of their last four games.
A meek 0-0 away to Liverpool was followed up by a home defeat by rock-bottom Sheffield United and another stalemate on the road, this time at Arsenal on Saturday.
While United stumbled, title rivals Manchester City and Liverpool have won back-to-back games, appearing very much to show their dominant form of the last few years.
It’s a big seven days for Solskjaer and his players, not least to arrest their own form and keep their title aspirations alive, but also because Liverpool take on City at the weekend. An inability to capitalise could prove that this United side have been nothing more than this season’s great pretenders.
Home is NOT where the heart is
Perhaps United will consider a new nickname for Old Trafford because this season it has been less Theatre of Dreams and more Theatre of Screams.
All four of United’s league defeats have come at home – Crystal Palace, Tottenham, Arsenal and Sheffield United – and so there is unlikely to be much joy gleaned from the fact they face back-to-back home games in what feels a defining week of the season.
Solskjaer’s side welcome Southampton to M16 on Tuesday night and Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side will firmly believe they can exact defeat on a United team appearing to feel the pressure of a title contender.
One of United’s four league defeats at home this season saw them shellacked by Tottenham
The most recent home league defeat saw bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United take the points
It took late heroics by Edinson Cavani in the reverse for United to steal victory and having already drawn away at Chelsea and beaten champions Liverpool, Southampton will be no pushover.
United have won just one of their last three home league games against the Saints but given City already hold a game in hand, Solskjaer’s side simply have to hold up their end of the bargain and keep up the pressure on their cross-city rivals, who play 24 hours later.
Hasenhuttl mocked United after Cavani’s late show at St Mary’s by claiming ‘they are celebrating in there like they have won the Premier League’. If they want to win it for real they can ill-afford another disaster at home.
But United will need not one but two big performances at home with Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton walking through the doors at Old Trafford a few days later.
It took a late brace from Edinson Cavani at St Mary’s to beat Southampton earlier this season
At Old Trafford United seem to freeze up and visiting sides are taking full advantage of it
United comfortably dispatched Everton on the road – once in the league and once in the Carabao Cup – this season but that supreme confidence seems to evaporate inside the bowels of Old Trafford.
Everton need a response after a disappointing turnover at Goodison Park against Newcastle and will need little extra motivation at the weekend away to United.
It was 2012-13 the last time United won the league and in that season they lost five times in a 38-game season.
Given they are already at four – all at home – their title contention seems to be approaching its expiration date if these two home visits go awry.
City in form… but will they run out of steam?
Not only are United stuttering and spluttering, Manchester City finally look to have figured it out.
They are still doing it without Sergio Aguero, and Kevin De Bruyne is out for a few weeks injured, but Pep Guardiola’s juggernaut has shown no signs of slowing down after making it eight league wins in a row.
City now sit top in the knowledge they still hold the ace up their sleeve in their game in hand over both United and Liverpool.
Manchester City have made it eight league wins in a row but face a brutal run of fixtures
Not only are City winning, their opponents are not laying a glove on them.
The 1-0 win over Sheffield United was their fifth consecutive clean sheet in the league – that’s now 13 goals for and zero against in their last five.
In this sort of form, betting against City would seem foolish.
They have just two defeats to their name – half that of United – and have conceded just 13 goals across 20 games, five of which came in the 5-2 loss to Leicester.
And so that anomaly to the Foxes aside, City have shipped just eight goals in 19 games. In short: a title-winning defence.
Now the question is – can they keep going? Can they handle going from the hunter to the hunted? Will they run out of steam just as it matters most?
Pep Guardiola is keen to shun the ‘favourites’ tag but he knows his side are now being hunted
After a trip to Burnley on Wednesday night, City navigate a fixture list that reads Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, West Ham and then a Manchester derby with United at the Etihad Stadium.
‘We are going to lose games and drop points,’ Guardiola said before beating Sheffield United.
Whether he truly believes that is another conversation but should this tricky run see City’s dominance evaporate, the door will swing wide open for a title rival to seize control.
Liverpool back in the mix
‘The most important thing is to qualify for the Champions League and I know how difficult it is,’ Jurgen Klopp said after the 0-0 draw with Manchester United.
‘This season it will be a tough race for the top four.’
It sounded defeatist in January for Klopp to be giving up the title race and alarm bells were ringing after their 68-game unbeaten run at Anfield was ended by Burnley in the next outing.
But it is amazing what a difference seven days can make, as United are hoping to see this week.
Mo Salah is reviving his form at just the right time for Liverpool as they are back in the mix
Victories on the road at Tottenham and West Ham have Liverpool right there in the mix with the Manchester clubs, one point off United and four off City.
They take on Brighton at Anfield next and will be widely expected to return to winning ways at home to set up a barnstorming head-to-head against City a few days later.
That game is of huge significance, at least psychologically, in this title race.
But much like City, this is a tricky run to navigate now with Liverpool’s patched-up defence reinforced by deadline-day loan arrivals Ben Davies from Preston North End and Schalke’s Ozan Kabak .
After 90 minutes against City, Liverpool face a run of games against Leicester City and a Merseyside derby against Everton.
Jurgen Klopp spoke about a battle to get in the top four but they are firmly in title contention
‘These boys are a really good group,’ Klopp said after beating West Ham.
‘They’re not happy at not being successful, not winning, but they always have the right attitude.’
They may be plagued by injuries but Liverpool’s squad have something that Manchester United’s group do not – a knowhow of how to get over the line, and that could be the difference in this frantic run-in.
Are United REALLY ‘frightened’ to go all the way?
‘Frightened’ was the word bandied about the Sky Sports studio between Roy Keane and Jamie Carragher after United’s meek 0-0 draw at Arsenal.
Given they are three points off City it seemed a withering assessment of a group that spent time top of the pile.
After beating Burnley, making it nine Premier League wins from 11, Solskjaer said: ‘We feel very confident going into games.
‘Away from home we have really done well. We have to believe in ourselves and we do. We’ve done a great job, it’s good times.’
Neville was critical of Man United and their lack of consistency in games
But after drawing at Arsenal, dropping points for the third time in four Premier League games, the Norwegian said: ‘We don’t think about the title race or the title now.
‘We’re in January. We’re just focusing on getting back on the road.’
A similar shift has been felt among pundits, Gary Neville the latest to chime in as he insisted United won’t win it all because they ‘haven’t got the mentality of a champion’.
‘They haven’t got it yet. They haven’t got the mentality of a champion team,’ he said on The Gary Neville Podcast.
‘It’s difficult to have that from being eight weeks ago thinking the manager’s in trouble after the defeat to RB Leipzig and going out of the Champions League, to all of a sudden eight weeks later transferring that mindset to ‘we’re a champion team’.
Roy Keane described United as ‘frightened’ after their stalemate away against Arsenal
‘They’re not like Liverpool. They haven’t won the title with all those players.
‘They’re not like Manchester City, they haven’t got titles in the bank. They haven’t got that experience to be able to draw upon.’
The narrative could be turned on its head in the space of a week, just as it has with Liverpool, if United take six points from six.
That is the challenge now for United, rid themselves of any insecurities, any fears as pundits put it and stamp their authority in the final few months of the season.
Fail to do so and the pundits will be right, United are not like Liverpool or Manchester City when it matters most.
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