Manchester United have had a rocky ride under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but there are signs that they could finally be turning the corner after completing a memorable league double over Manchester City.
The Norwegian appeared to be bringing the good times back to Old Trafford when he took over from Jose Mourinho last season but their stunning run of results proved a false dawn.
This season has also been a difficult one for United, who are a scarcely credible 37 points behind their historical rivals Liverpool in the Premier League.
There have been high points, including an opening-day thumping of Chelsea and a 2-1 away win at the Etihad but some desperate lows, with defeats against West Ham, Bournemouth and Watford.
But there are genuine signs of recovery under Solskjaer, with United now unbeaten in 10 games in all competitions and at last playing with purpose and style, illustrated by the 2-0 home victory against City on Sunday.
Bruno Fernandes, who arrived in January, has slotted in straight away, bringing swagger, leadership and desperately needed creativity to a ponderous and flat midfield.
Solskjaer said after Sunday’s win that the Portugal international had energised the whole club and had brought an “X-factor” to United.
Defensively the team has tightened up, conceding just two goals in their 10-match unbeaten run. Harry Maguire is proving a leader at the back and Aaron Wan-Bissaka shone against City.
United are now fifth in the Premier League, which could be good enough to qualify for the Champions League next season, depending on the outcome of City’s appeal against their ban from European football.
Solskjaer focused on the growing bond between his players and the fans after they completed a first derby double over City for 10 years at a pulsating Old Trafford.
“The desire, attitude, commitment, the connection between fans and players,” said Solskjaer. “What a day they’ve had today.
“It’s a derby. The fans love it, the players love it. You can say it’s only three points, but to beat a team like Manchester City with the problems we’ve had is fantastic.”
United have the chance to end the season on a high. They are just three points behind fourth-placed Chelsea in the Premier League and only five behind Leicester, in third.
They have a favourable draw against Austrian side LASK in the last 16 of the Europa League and travel to struggling Norwich in the FA Cup quarter-finals.
They are a long way from their domination under the leadership of Alex Ferguson and their season could yet disintegrate – but there are a number of reasons for optimism.
United finally appear to have got a grip on their transfer policy after some high-profile errors.
Fernandes has been the standout story but Maguire, Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James have impressed since their arrival in the summer.
Even last-minute January signing Odion Ighalo, who arrived on loan from Shanghai Shenhua, has hit the ground running, scoring three times so far.
United’s in-house talent factory is also bearing fruit. Mason Greenwood has 11 goals this season and fellow teenager Brandon Williams has impressed in his multiple first-team outings.
Their recent run has come in the absence, through injury, of top-scorer Marcus Rashford, who will add firepower on his return.
One measure of United’s recent success has been the lack of talk about the missing Paul Pogba, whose injuries have limited him to a bit-part role this season.
Either the French World Cup winner will come back into the side, giving Solskjaer extra midfield options, or he can be sold for big money, swelling the coffers.
Solskjaer, scarred by last year’s end-of-season collapse, is not getting carried away and was clear that the City win was just “one game”.
“We feel we are improving all the time,” he said. “We know we lack one or two, three players, and some experience, to be considered a title contender.
“But we are not going to start talking about that now. We are just going to start talking about going up the table, getting more points, to that top four.”
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