Another big game and another big win. Some wondered whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would be among the turkeys at Thanksgiving but he is now destined to see through Christmas.
Manchester United have beaten Champions League semi-finalists and finalists within eight days with a conviction bordering on arrogance and are poised to qualify for the the knockouts with matches to spare. They dismissed RB Leipzig as though affronted by the upstarts’ status.
Oh for a teeming Old Trafford. This was United’s second 5-0 drubbing on Solskjaer’s watch in Europe and if the presence of the players reduced Leipzig to nervous wrecks then goodness knows how chastening it would have been with Mancunians present.
Emerging from a group featuring RB Leipzig and Paris Saint-Germain would no longer represent an achievement. United are in the midst of raising standards again in Europe after too many relegations to the Europa League. Passage to the last 16 is in danger of becoming straightforward. United have back-to-back ties against their group’s likely wooden spoon recipients, Istanbul Basaksehir, and 12 points from 12 is not just attainable but probable.
Leipzig and PSG, two of European football’s gaudy upstarts, have been taught a lesson by one of its glamour clubs. United have not looked incongruous participants back in the competition they have cherished since Sir Matt Busby’s trailblazing in the 50s and Solskjaer’s tactical acumen underpinned this latest triumph.
Even against coaches younger than him Solskjaer is viewed as the junior rookie and that was depicted again in his duel with the 33-year-old Julian Nagelsmann, already with a reputation to arouse envy among most of his peers. Solskjaer can add Nagelsmann to the collection of scalps he has bagged in under two years with United. Nagelsmann, his stock lowered, looked dumbfounded at 4-0 and he had long since stopped screaming at his pitiful players.
Nagelsmann, born eight months after Alex Ferguson was paraded at Old Trafford, has his admirers among United’s fickle fanbase but Solskjaer’s tactical foresight can only be underestimated for so much longer. He has schooled United’s would-be heir to Jose Mourinho, Mauricio Pochettino, and Pep Guardiola with split strikers and in successive weeks dominated fashionable Germans coaches via two different formations.
United showed potential with a diamond at Everton on March 1 and were sharper at all edges with Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek. United mastered it with two gems – Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford – in reserve and Rashford and Scott McTominay were introduced just past the hour in another show of United’s enhanced squad depth. Rashford crowned his cameo with a first career hat-trick.
Matic, the most impressive at Goodison Park over seven months ago, was only withdrawn due to a caution and Van de Beek, in his first major start for his new club, made way for Bruno Fernandes, who found Rashford for the clincher. United’s midfield department has not been this imposing since they last hoisted the European Cup in 2008.
“Finish, Rashy,” Solskjaer hollered before Rashford did just that. That was his second in four minutes and a reckless tackle by Marcel Sabitzer presented United with a penalty. Solskjaer instructed Anthony Martial, goalless all season, to step up ahead of the usual taker Fernandes or hat-trick hunter Rashford. Martial got off the mark and Solskjaer smiled smugly but Rashford refused to be denied the match ball. Solskjaer’s in-game management was flawless yet again.
Pogba was more expressive in an advanced role where he was largely spared of defensive responsibilities, shared by Matic and Fred, undroppable again in spite of the acquisition of Van de Beek. United’s £221million midfield quartet was underpinned by a renascent Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire, so vocal he could have been heard at Salford Quays.
Lindelof has had his best week in 18 months and tends to reserve his finest performances against the elite. His and Maguire’s axis, secure again after a porous start to the campaign, is well-timed after the desirable Dayot Upamecano familiarised himself with The Lowry Hotel. Upamecano’s first visit to Manchester was as miserable as the weather and he is on common ground with Maguire after enduring his own five-goal humbling in M16.
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Solskjaer demanded Martial play ‘higher’ and his assistant Kieran McKenna chirped to spark an intense press that unsettled Upamecano and his defensive partner Marcel Halstenberg. Successful presses were celebrated bullishly by the United bench and Nagelsmann struggled to be as loud as his checked country club jacket.
The phenomenal Fred was alert from the off and regained the ball for Pogba to play in Mason Greenwood in the 21st minute. The split-second Upamecano dared to blink he was blindsided by the United forward. Greenwood had earlier made the right run but Martial played the wrong ball whereas Pogba’s was measured so expertly it utilised the Manchester rainfall glistening on the blades of grass.
Luke Shaw offered width that could have been mistaken for Alex Telles without his manager having to instruct him and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, an auxiliary centre half on occasion, was impregnable. David de Gea is keeping clean sheets again. Christmas has come early.