Man United gaining respect from rivals ahead of crucial week

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Manchester United's manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer waves towards the directors box as he walks to the technical area ahead of the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Aston Villa at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. (Lindsey Parnaby/ Pool via AP)

Over the next seven days, Manchester United can reach a cup final and climb to the top of the Premier League — all at the expense of its two biggest rivals, Manchester City and Liverpool.

It makes for a potentially transformative week for United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who just a month ago was under real pressure — not for the first time in his turbulent, two-year tenure — after a group-stage elimination in the Champions League.

Now, Solskjaer is on the cusp of what would be seen as something of a breakthrough for United, English soccer’s grandest club which has not won a trophy since 2017 and was beaten in the semifinals of three competitions last season.

First up is a meeting with Man City in the League Cup semifinals, a repeat of last season but this time being played over only one leg because of the condensed, coronavirus-impacted season.

Twelve months ago, City won the first leg at Old Trafford 3-1 and ended up holding on for a 1-0 loss in the second leg at home to advance to a final Pep Guardiola’s team would win against Aston Villa.

Then, next Tuesday, United will travel to Burnley needing only to avoid defeat to move above Liverpool and into first place in the league after 17 games. Quite the motivation, considering United’s next match is at Anfield on Jan. 17.

United, it seems, is back in the conversation when it comes to winning silverware. And that has got its rivals on edge.

Perhaps that was the reason Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, out of nowhere, referred to United’s penchant for winning penalties in his post-match news conference after a 1-0 loss at Southampton on Monday.