MANCHESTER, England — After beating Burnley 3-1 at Old Trafford, Manchester United are within eight points of Premier League leaders Manchester City with six games to play. It is the same situation that faced City when chasing United in 2012… and we all know how that finished.
Lightning is unlikely to strike twice, but if nothing else, United backed up Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s claim that they would do everything in the final weeks of the season to put pressure on Pep Guardiola’s team. It would take a monumental collapse but that will not stop plenty of United fans keeping an eye on City’s trip to Aston Villa on Wednesday.
For a while on Sunday, it looked as if that would be unnecessary after James Tarkowski headed an equaliser to cancel out Mason Greenwood’s opener, but goals from Greenwood and Edinson Cavani in the final six minutes handed United a first home win over Burnley since 2015 and added some extra intrigue around the game at Villa Park.
The scorer of a stoppage time winner in a Champions League final, Solskjaer knows all about the value of refusing to throw in the towel.
“I am really proud that we never give up and we have proven so many times this season our fitness and resilience,” he said. “We came back last week [against Tottenham] and we scored three goals. We scored three goals in the second half again [against Burnley].”
“The title is probably unrealistic but stranger things have happened in football,” United’s manager added. “We just have to do our job.”
Solskjaer knows United do not celebrate achievements unless they come in the form of silverware, but with the title all but out of reach, his team are nevertheless closing on a notable first during the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.
United have matched their points total — 66 — for each of the last two seasons and, with a 12-point lead over fifth-place Chelsea, are set to guarantee Champions League qualification, which will also mark consecutive top-four finishes for the first time since Ferguson retired in 2013.
Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho — winners of 15 domestic titles around Europe and three Champions Leagues between them — are two of the three men to have failed where Solskjaer, whose credentials as United manager are regularly questioned, looks set to succeed.
It is not a milestone that will have champagne corks popping in the Norwegian’s office but it is noteworthy nonetheless.
At the very least it suggests United are more consistent. The next step is to challenge for the title regularly and, ultimately, win it; although that is easier said than done, Solskjaer appears to have built a platform.
Van Gaal and Mourinho both had two full seasons in charge and, while each won trophies, their league finishes read fourth, fifth, sixth and second. In his two full campaigns as boss, Solskjaer is on course to finish third and second.
United lost three of their opening six league matches this season, but have been beaten in only one of their last 26 top-flight games. Beating Burnley – for the first time at home since 2015 — also gave them five league victories in a row for the first time since Solskjaer won first six straight after taking over from Mourinho in December 2018.
“First half we started OK, got control but we couldn’t find the big openings and Burnley made it more of an end-to-end game, bit scrappy because they defended and attacked so well we couldn’t get a rhythm,” Solskjaer said. “We played and ran in the second half, got chances and got the goal deservedly; you switched off for two seconds for the corner and that’s how it is against Burnley.”
After scoring one league goal between September and March, Greenwood has found the net in each of his last three games, with five in his last six appearances in all competitions. Solskjaer’s prediction that the 19-year-old would start scoring again has been proved right.
“Very happy for Mason,” Solskjaer said. “He’s mixing up his game. He goes inside and outside, he’s maturing all the time. It’s lovely to see. He’s put the work in on the training ground and reaps the rewards.”
Greenwood’s double draws him level with Wayne Rooney for league goals by a United teenager with 15 and late-season form could yet earn an England recall in time for the European Championships. That comeback is slightly more likely than overhauling City for the title, but United are doing their best to turn up the heat.