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Barring a Devon Loch-like collapse starting on Grand National weekend, Manchester City will canter to a third title in four years, but Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s second full season at rivals United has to show a continuation of the upward curve that began with last year’s third-place finish in the league. The United manager is in no mood to dress up a prospective second-place finish, conceding it may take “blood, sweat and tears” to close the gap on Manchester City next season.
Solskjær, whose United side travel to Tottenham on Sunday, says: “You can’t say that is an achievement. Our ambition is a lot more than second place. I said that when I wasn’t at the club – you can never be happy with that. Our ambition is to catch the team in front of us.”
That team is Pep Guardiola’s league leaders. “At the moment they [City] have had a fantastic season, have had three or four of them, and we know the challenge ahead of us. But we have to take it on. If you don’t, then you’re in the wrong place because that is what I am going for – players have to really take that on. Blood, sweat and tears have to be put down because this is the best league in the world – and most difficult.”
United’s run-in after Spurs features Leicester and Liverpool – both also in the top-four shake-up – as well as Burnley, Leeds, Aston Villa, Fulham and Wolves. That presents United with the chance to seal their closest points margin to the champions since Sir Alex Ferguson led them to a 20th title eight years ago.
Cutting United’s “best” also-ran margin from the 15 points to Leicester under Louis van Gaal in 2015-16 is hardly worth shouting about, yet such an achievement would allow Solskjær to cite the progress as United’s manager.
Since Ferguson stepped away following the 2012-13 triumph, United have also trailed in 22 points behind under David Moyes – who was sacked after 34 games – when finishing seventh, 17 under Van Gaal in 2014-15 (fourth), 24 under José Mourinho in 2016-17 (6th), 19 in 2017-18 (Mourinho, second), 32 in 2018-19 (Mourinho and Solskjær, sixth), and last year’s 33.
“We’re in second place and fighting to get that, and hopefully also shorten the distance to Manchester City, then we can see the progress we’ve made,” Solskjær says. “The mood is good, but the players are not happy – they are hungry to improve and win something, to establish themselves in and around the top of the league.
“If you look back at the last six or seven years, we have not been stable in the top two or three positions. There have been ones [seasons] when we’ve been fifth, sixth or seventh. So if we can get a good second place, not just scrape into it, we will go into the next one with hopes we can go even further.”
United could still claim a trophy and break their four-year drought. In control of their Europa League quarter-final after Thursday’s opening leg 2-0 victory at Granada, they are favourites to reach the semi‑final, where the winner of the Ajax-Roma tie await.
“We know we are in a good position in the quarter-finals,” Solskjær says. “We had a good result.” Yet having lost all four previous semi-finals under him, there are no guarantees of reaching the final in Gdansk.
This flaky last-four record was partly behind Solskjær’s recent declaration that cup glory can be for the “ego” and hide faultlines at a club. If the league is where United should be measured then Tottenham provide the next stern challenge following the 6-1 humiliation at the hands of Mourinho’s side in October.
Solskjær puts that defeat down to a truncated pre-season contributing to a lack of match-fitness for what was United’s third league outing and Anthony Martial being “conned” into a red card just before half-time.
“We learnt a lot from it – especially not to get wound up, and not to react – so even though the players will be fired up, I still want to see a lot of composure,” he says.
That was United’s last serious wobble in the league. Two more followed: 1-0 to Arsenal and 2-1 to Sheffield United, each at Old Trafford, and overall there have been four defeats – Crystal Palace also beat them 3-1 at home – but after 30 games United are 14 points better off than last season.
Another welcome point for Solskjær is the daylight between United and fifth place in the league, meaning qualification for the Champions League remains comfortably in their hands. And one more is the comparison with Ferguson after 138 matches in charge. The great Scot’s record after 138 games in charge was 64 wins, 38 draws and 36 defeats. Solskjær’s stands at 77, 31 and 30. But, as he states, coming first and claiming league title No 21 for Manchester United is the only number that truly matters.