Manchester United’s crucial 2-0 derby win against Man City yesterday was more than just a victory, it was the return of Manchester United.
There have been some excellent moments and achievements since Sir Alex Ferguson’s men lifted the Premier League trophy back in 2013 – an FA Cup win, a Europa League win and that famous night in Paris to name a few. But what we saw yesterday was the character, the arrogance and the flair that made Ferguson’s United such a dominant force.
Nobody is getting carried away after a 10-match unbeaten run in which the Red Devils have only conceded two goals. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted after the game that ‘we know we lack one, two or three players and some experience, to be considered a title contender.’ But what everyone has seen is that the side has turned a psychological corner and that self-belief is well and truly back.
The two January signings of Bruno Fernandes and Odion Ighalo – particularly the former – have led to that transformation. Despite being a polite and humble man, Fernandes has walked into Premier League football like he owns the place. From day one, he’s not been afraid to direct his teammates, to put in crunching tackles and, oh, to tell Pep Guardiola to shush during the game, an act that sent fans wild on social media.
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The manager himself seems to have his swag on as well. It could have been Sir Alex himself in the post-match presser, ruing the only two goals the Reds have conceded in that unbeaten run: ‘Look at the two goals we’ve conceded though – one shouldn’t have been given against Club Brugge because the ball was rolling and the last one was David’.
Solskjaer was also ruing missed chances even though his side had just completed the double over the reigning champions, saying ‘there were two or three times today, head up and we score goals. Twice Dan James could just square it, once for Bruno, one for Anthony. Anthony should square it for Bruno.’
The boss also had time to have a Fergie-esque dig at referee Mike Dean, saying that Fred ‘should have had a penalty, it’s a clear penalty. It’s a clear kick on his ankle. It is one of those things that you hope doesn’t come back to bite us, but we got the result we needed.’
There was even the ‘Fergie time’ goal as well, courtesy of substitute Scott McTominay – a 40 yard thing of beauty from near the touchline.
There have been times this season when fans and the media alike have doubted the nature of the rebuild that Solskjaer has been putting together. There have also been times that the Norwegian’s tactical nous has been questioned. But both proved spectacularly successful yesterday.
Whatever happens from now on, United do now have a team rich in personality. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, eight out of eight spidertackles won, had Raheem Sterling in his pocket yet again.
Then there is Fred, possibly the most improved player in the Premier League this season, who has become the heartbeat of this Manchester United side, demonstrating boundless energy and covering every blade of grass every time he plays.
Even Nemanja Matic seems to have found a new lease of life and has rolled back the years to become a man mountain in front of the back line.
But the difference between bringing on Odion Ighalo and Scott McTominay as substitutes to see out the game versus the likes of Lingard and Pereira possibly represents the biggest difference between this United side and that of just a few weeks ago. You almost feel sorry for the opposition when United can bring on two players who just double the hunger levels that are already there. Two players who will bleed for the Manchester United badge. Two warriors.
It is not an easy road ahead. There is still a lot of work to do to get Manchester United back to where they belong. But yesterday was something special. As the manager himself put it, ‘It’s a privilege to have players like this.’
‘The desire and work-rate, that’s what I think the fans love about these players. To see the connections between the players, the team and the fans today – what an atmosphere.’
‘At the end, seeing everyone in the stands. You turn around and you see Sir Alex [Ferguson] up there, he is proud and it’s a big moment for every one of us.’
United are through to the FA Cup quarter finals after their win at Derby. But how much do you know about the Red Devils’ history in the FA Cup? Take our quiz below to find out!