LONDON: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s perfect start as Manchester United’s caretaker manager faces its stiffest test when the Norwegian goes head-to-head with reportedly United’s preferred target for the job on a full-time basis in Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino.
After a brief lull for FA Cup duties last weekend, Liverpool and Manchester City also renew their battle for the title, while at the other end of the table four of the bottom five meet in two relegation six-pointers.
United have swept aside more limited opposition in Cardiff, Huddersfield, Bournemouth, Newcastle in the league and Reading in the FA Cup since Solskjaer took charge to close the gap on the top four to six points.
However, they remain 10 points adrift of third-placed Spurs with Pochettino’s stock continuing to rise this season for keeping Tottenham in contention across four competitions despite working with a fraction of the resources on offer at Old Trafford.
Spurs moved another step closer to winning their first trophy under the Argentine by beating Chelsea 1-0 in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final on Tuesday.
But while Pochettino’s men have had to keep grinding after a gruelling festive period, United have had the luxury of a free week to head off to Dubai on a mid-season training camp.
“As you can imagine, it’s quite a happy camp. When you’re winning football matches, you can’t put a price on the feeling that gives you, and the confidence and the belief,” said United coach Michael Carrick, who has formed an important part of Solskjaer’s backroom staff.
“You almost sense a calmness when you’re winning games. It’s great to see the lads enjoying themselves. The football’s flowing, the training’s good, they’re bouncing around the place, and it’s nice to see.”
United have scored 16 goals in their last five games in stark contrast to the football often devoid of inspiration that came to characterise Jose Mourinho’s final days in charge.
Solskjaer has rejuvenated Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku among others and should the visitors strike a potentially decisive blow to Spurs’ title hopes on Sunday, the caretaker boss will do his chances of earning the job on a full-time basis no harm at all.
The Premier League’s festive fixture list ended with arguably the best game of the season so far as City inflicted Liverpool’s first league defeat of the season to reduce the gap at the top to four points.
A much-changed Liverpool also crashed out of the FA Cup to Wolves on Monday, but that may ultimately help their case to end a 29-year wait to win the league.
Jurgen Klopp now has more time to prepare for a run of five very winnable fixtures before facing Bayern Munich in the Champions League that begins at Brighton on Saturday with Leicester, Crystal Palace, West Ham and Bournemouth to come.
Victory at the Amex will open up a seven-point advantage at the top once more with City not in action until Monday when Wolves visit the Etihad.
Pep Guardiola’s men have smashed 16 goals past lower league Rotherham and Burton in Cup action in the past two games, but Wolves have proven to be a thorn in the side of all the top six in their first season back in the top flight.
City were held 1-1 at Molineux earlier in the season and Wolves have also won at Spurs and drawn away to Arsenal and Manchester United.
Already eight points adrift of safety, Huddersfield realistically have to avoid a 10th straight defeat when they travel to Cardiff on Saturday to avoid the drop.
“The reality at the minute is that I’m not happy because we, and I, haven’t delivered what we expect. I, and we, have to turn this,” said manager David Wagner.
Fulham’s victory over the Terriers just before the end of the year has given Claudio Ranieri’s men more chance of staying up and victory at Burnley could pull them to within one point of safety.
Fixtures (all times 1500GMT unless stated)
West Ham v Arsenal (1230), Brighton v Liverpool, Burnley v Fulham, Cardiff v Huddersfield, Crystal Palace v Watford, Leicester v Southampton, Chelsea v Newcastle (1730)
Everton v Bournemouth (1415), Tottenham v Manchester United (1630)
Manchester City v Wolves (2000). - AFP