Photo: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Manchester United have a run of four crucial games in the Premier League. (Getty Images)
After a near disastrous start to the English Premier League season, Manchester United’s entire season was in danger of falling off the rails when they inexplicably crashed out of the UEFA Champions League in early December.
The Ole Gunnar Solksjaer coached team had won three games of the first four games of the Champions League group stage, including an away win over least season’s, finalist Paris St. Germain (PSG). But following losses in their final two games, United suddenly found themselves relegated to the second tier, UEFA Europa League, as they finished the first round in third place in the group.
A loss to Arsenal on the first of November had also left them in 15th place in the league and fans and pundits alike were calling for the head of the Norwegian by the time United’s 2020-2021 Champions League campaign ended on December 8th following a 3-2 away loss to RB Leipzig.
But even while United were failing in Europe, their domestic form started improving after the loss to Arsenal and they have now gone unbeaten in 7 league games, claiming 19 of a possible 21 points in that run, to be in third place in the league at Christmas. This is the highest they have been at this stage of the season under Solskjaer.
However, the next four games in the league could well define United’s season as they face second place Leicester away on Boxing Day, Wolves at home three days later, Aston Villa AT Old Trafford on New Years’ Day, before they face bitter rivals and defending champions Liverpool, at Anfield on January 17th.
Leicester City, who were champions in 2015-16, have defied all odds this term to be second at Christmas. A full fit Jamie Vardy has been a menace to defenses in the league and he will have fond memories of playing against United. He will be the main threat for the Foxes at the King Power Stadium.
James Madison has improved with every game, while Wilfried Ndidi has been solid in midfield and they were very influential in the 2-0 win over Jose Mourinho’s, Tottenham Hotspurs, last time out. A win on Saturday would see United climb to second in the league, but victory will certainly not be a straightforward matter against Brendan Rodger’s men.
Wolves have had indifferent results in their last few match days, but they are a difficult unit to play against as Nuno Espirito Santo has built a solid unit. They currently sit 11th in the league but they have been as high as sixth this term. Despite missing Raul Jimenez to long term injury, Pedro Neto and Adama Traore still pose a massive threat to any defence in the premiership. The game at Old Trafford next Tuesday will be a good watch.
While United have a game in hand over the teams above them, having played 13 games, Aston Villa have played only 12 and so have two games in hand. Victory in both those games in hand could see Villa climb to second in the league, enough motivation for them to go after United when the two meet at Old Trafford to start the New Year.
Jack Grealish who was heavily linked with United in the summer, has been one of the stars of the season so far and Villa, who just avoided relegation on the last day of the previous season, now sit in 9th. Ollie Watkins starred in Villa’s 7-2 demolition of Liverpool where he bagged a hattrick, has six goals so far this term and has added a different dimension to the Aston Villa attack.
Dean Smith has transformed his outfit from relegation fodder to probable title contenders in a few short months and knows that the game against Manchester United is pivotal to establishing their title credentials.
Liverpool away caps off the tough four match stretch for United. This intriguing contest will pit the team with the current best away record against the team with the best home record in the league.
Liverpool are the only team in touching distance of United’s 20 league titles and could in fact equal that record should they defend their title this season. This only adds further intrigue to a fixture that has more story lines than a Hollywood blockbuster.
Liverpool and United both suffered heavy defeats in the league on the same day, but have both recovered and are now separated by five points with United having a game in hand as an advantage.
There is no love lost between these two teams which will set up this clash nicely, especially for the neutrals.
Jurgen Klopp’s team has shown remarkable resilience as they have dealt with injuries to number of high-profile players, including long-term absentee Virgil Van Dyke. Mo Salah and Sadio Mane continue to bang in the goals for Liverpool, while Roberto Firmino has rediscovered his goal scoring form, at just the right time.
Liverpool knocked Tottenham off the top of the league when they defeated them 2-0 on match day twelve and seems to be in the peak of form at the moment.
For Solksjaer, each of the four games present a different set of challenges, but consistency in the league has brought confidence to the squad that clearly revolves around the January signing Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese has been scoring goals and providing assists for a frontline that is now finding their range.
The acquisition of veteran Edinson Cavani on a free transfer from PSG has proven to be a shrewd signing as the Uruguayan had added a much needed focal point to the United attack when he gets a start.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are back amongst the goals and the defence has looked a lot more solid in the past few weeks, especially since the introduction of Alex Telles at left back.
Four wins in those four games would clearly establish Manchester United as title contenders, but as Ole himself likes to say, Manchester United will be taking it one game at a time.