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.
“I hear now,” Klopp said, “that Manchester United had more penalties in two years than I had in five-and-a-half years (at Liverpool).
“I’ve no idea if that’s my fault, or how that can happen.”
Whether or not it was a ploy to plant a seed in the mind of referees, Klopp clearly has United in his thoughts.
Then there’s Guardiola, who has changed his approach to games this season by making his team more defensive-minded and less vulnerable to the counterattack. Nowhere has this vulnerability been more apparent than in matches against United, which has won three of the last five Manchester derbies — mostly through its ruthlessness on the counterattack.
The last derby was on Dec. 12, a cagey league game that ended 0-0 with Guardiola again showing his caution.
“That was a progression,” Solskjaer said Tuesday, “staying more in the game. You never know what kind of system he (Guardiola) is going to come up with, but you know you have to defend really well against Man City.
“There have been some fascinating games. I feel we have got closer and closer to them.”
Solskjaer has said since joining United in November 2018 that Liverpool and City are the yardsticks to which United needs to judge itself. It has been an arduous journey but his team is finally at the stage where it can challenge England’s top two teams.
The Norwegian coach said there have been no lingering effects of the losses in the semifinals last season — in the League Cup, FA Cup and Europa League.
In fact, Solskjaer said, it has made United stronger.
“When you get to a semi, you have done a lot of good work to get there,” he said. “Naturally you play against better and better opposition. We have improved immensely in a year … it’s easy to say have we learnt but it’s not about learning, it’s about fine margins.”
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80