After having to endure the dog days of Jose Mourinho’s tenure as United manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment brought renewed optimism to the club’s supporters, but recently performances under the Norwegian have dipped alarmingly.
The Red Devils were soundly beaten by Barcelona in the Champions League quarterfinal last week before being thumped 4-0 by Everton on Sunday.
Now, United meets title-chasing local rival Manchester City on Wednesday, a team that has won 10 Premier League games in a row and will be looking to rub its current superiority in the face of its more illustrious neighbor.
Should United take points off its crosstown rival, however, it would severely dent City’s title ambitions, give it local bragging rights and boost its own hopes of securing the Premier League’s final Champions League spot as the season comes to a close.
Yet such a scenario would also hand the advantage in the title race to historic rival Liverpool, a club chasing down United’s record of 20 league title wins, and which is currently battling it out with City at the top of the Premier League table.
A draw on Wednesday, would leave City a point behind Liverpool, while defeat would keep Jurgen Klopp’s side two points ahead.
Understandably, helping either City or Liverpool to win the league is a particularly unappealing prospect to those of a United persuasion.
Former United boss, Alex Ferguson, once described City as the “noisy neighbors,” a less than flattering epithet that suggested the then burgeoning City challenge after it was purchased by the Abu Dhabi Group in 2008 was more noise than substance.
Yet a positive result on Wednesday would go a long way to bouncing back after Sunday’s shellacking at Everton and ending a concerning run of form and performances.
A remarkable turnaround in fortunes after Solskjaer was appointed temporary manager following Mourinho’s sacking in December has tapered off in recent weeks.
After going unbeaten in Solskjaer’s first 12 league games and staging a dramatic comeback to beat PSG in the last 16 of the Champions League, United has since lost six of its last eight games in all competitions.
Solskjaer was appointed full-time United manager last month, but that appears to have coincided with the club’s dramatic drop off in form.
Against Everton on Sunday, United was outworked and outmaneuvered by a more determined opponent.
Statistics showed that Everton players covered a remarkable eight kilometers more than Manchester United’s over the course of the match.
The Everton defeat prompted a number of pundits to speculate whether the United board should have waited until the end of the season before making a decision on a permanent managerial appointment and also whether the likes of David de Gea, Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku would want to say if they were playing Europa League football next season.
Solskjaer told media after the Everton game that the performance was “difficult to describe because it was so bad” and “not good enough for a Man United team.”
Pep Guardiola’s men are now chasing an English domestic treble having already won the league cup and secured its place in the season-ending FA Cup final next month.
No English team has ever completed that treble of trophies, although United achieved what is in all probability a more difficult treble success in 1999 when it won the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.
Victory at United would mean City would be just three wins away from securing back-to-back Premier League titles for the first time in its history.
With games to come against Burnley, Leicester and Brighton — all matches in which City would be heavy favorites to win — Wednesday’s match at Old Trafford seems to be the hardest of its remaining fixtures, at least on paper, especially as key player Kevin de Bruyne was injured in the win over Tottenham and is expected to miss the Mancunian derby.
Guardiola told reporters Tuesday that he expected the “best United” to turn up and acknowledged that Solskjaer and his team would be looking to respond after Sunday’s humbling.
But while United has every chance of winning Wednesday’s game and aiding its on cause in the battle for the final Champions League place, it also knows that either City or Liverpool will be delighted come the end of play on Wednesday evening.
Pity the Manchester United fan.