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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s one win off the top spot… Manchester United are the real deal 

Just three weeks after a rather humiliating retreat from Leipzig, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has every reason to enter the new year feeling optimistic about his Manchester United team.

Serious questions were asked of Solskjaer after United were dumped out of the Champions League in Germany. How much progress has he made at Old Trafford? Is he the right man to take the club forward after two trophyless years in charge?

On Friday night, United face Aston Villa looking for the win that would take them joint top of the Premier League with Liverpool.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United are just one win off the top of the Premier League

Marcus Rashford's late winner against Wolves increased the feel-good factor at United

Marcus Rashford’s late winner against Wolves increased the feel-good factor at United

Solskjaer’s star is ascending again and the shadow of Mauricio Pochettino will disappear any moment now if the former Tottenham manager’s return to the dugout with Paris Saint-Germain is confirmed.

The United manager has been reluctant to discuss the title race at this stage of the season.

These are still early days and he knows how quickly fortunes can change, particularly in a table in which only 10 points separate the top 11 teams.

But Solskjaer said last month that he would know a lot more about United’s prospects after a Christmas programme packed with six games in 16 days and the response from his players has been pretty emphatic. 

A run of five games, four wins and one draw speaks for itself. Perhaps, more importantly, he can finally see a change in mentality after two years at the helm and the arrival of influential characters such as Bruno Fernandes and Harry Maguire. 

Solskjaer says Bruno Fernandes and Harry Maguire have helped to change United's mentality

Solskjaer says Bruno Fernandes and Harry Maguire have helped to change United’s mentality

Questions were asked after their Champions League elimination but United bounced back

Questions were asked after their Champions League elimination but United bounced back

‘Definitely,’ said Solskjaer. ‘One, they’re two years older than when I came. Two, some of them are really strong personalities who we’ve brought in and they have been a really good influence.

‘We have competition for places which means you cannot go around and think you can just fake your way being part of this team. You only deserve to be in a team that you contribute to.

‘Everyone has realised they are privileged to be part of such a fantastic club with a fantastic history. When you’re here, enjoy it as much as you can and maybe you will experience some fantastic times.’

Solskjaer did just that under Sir Alex Ferguson, whose 79th birthday on Thursday coincided with the death of former United manager Tommy Docherty, 92.

Late goals were a hallmark of Ferguson’s teams and Solskjaer was encouraged by the manner of Marcus Rashford’s stoppage-time winner against Wolves on Tuesday evening.

‘The belief is there more that we don’t have to press the panic button,’ he added.

‘We’re getting more and more used to the way we want to play and we know we’ve got players who can win you games in one second. One incredible pass or dribble, some skill.

‘We have to know that so many games are decided towards the end. It’s very seldom that you can blow teams away and win by half-time. Then subs will come on and make a difference. That’s happened so many times for us.’

Rotation of a strong squad was another key factor in Ferguson’s success and there is no doubt that United’s strength in depth has helped them cope with the congested fixture list.

‘I remember the times that you feel you deserve to play and you’re left out,’ Solskjaer recalled.

Solskjaer is pleased with the belief in his squad and says it's difficult to leave key players out

Solskjaer is pleased with the belief in his squad and says it’s difficult to leave key players out

‘That’s part of being at Manchester United, you’ve got top players everywhere. We know that throughout the season if you’re going to win something you have to contribute.

‘Players will have to be angry with me until the next time they play because they’re not happy when I tell them they’re starting on the bench.

‘We have a strong squad and have rotated a lot. We’ve not really called it a settled XI because I don’t think this season is going to be about that anyway. It’s going to be about the squad.

Fernandes insists that now is the time for United to start winning silverware on a regular basis

Fernandes insists that now is the time for United to start winning silverware on a regular basis

‘Towards the end of the season, that will help us. Injuries and suspensions will happen, so our squad is well capable of being ready for every game.

‘It’s horses for courses. Some players you feel are more suitable for some teams, but of course you do plan ahead.’

Fernandes has played a big part in United’s progress, becoming the heartbeat of this team.

Having lost three semi-finals in his first season, however, the Portuguese playmaker insists that United need to start delivering silverware.

‘The main thing I want, that I didn’t achieve until now, is the trophies,’ he said. ‘That is clear. We really can do that in 2021.’ 

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