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Dublin: 17 °C Thursday 13 August, 2020
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Promising Irish starlet hands reality check to Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer

Michael Obafemi’s last-gasp equaliser caused a setback to the Red Devils’ Champions League ambitions.

Dublin-born striker Michael Obafemi celebrates a 96th-minute equaliser against Man United.
Dublin-born striker Michael Obafemi celebrates a 96th-minute equaliser against Man United.
Image: Dave Thompson/NMC Pool/PA Wire

‘POTENTIAL’ WAS the word that sprang to mind after watching last night’s Premier League clash between Manchester United and Southampton.

Ireland international Michael Obafemi — who scored an opportunistic last-gasp equaliser after coming on as an 87th-minute substitute — has the potential to be a top player. And Man United — whose hopes of Champions League qualification suffered a setback — have the potential to be a great team.

Yet all it is at the moment is potential, though you would not believe it in relation to the Red Devils had you listened to a portion of the talk leading up to last night’s game.

Some commentators even suggested they could challenge Liverpool and Man City for the league next season, but on the evidence of the draw with Southampton, they are still a long way off that level.

While it was a strangely subdued performance from Man United, as the season approaches its climax, there were positives too for the Red Devils.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are now 18 games unbeaten in all competitions, an astonishing feet considering the problems that were apparent in the first half of the season — at the beginning of February, their Premier League record read: won nine, drawn eight, lost eight. Since then, it’s been: won seven, drawn three, lost zero.

There is increasing evidence that one big call, which drew plenty of criticism earlier this season, was the correct one.

Some critics felt letting the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez leave at the start of the season without signing any obvious replacements was a mistake and left United look a little bare up front.

However, the performances of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood have vindicated the bold move from Solskjaer. 

Even Odion Ighalo — a player who drew scepticism upon his signing in January — has looked an able deputy.

And United’s attack were again impressive at Old Trafford on Monday. A blistering three-minute period saw them turn the game on its head, courtesy of a clinical finish from Rashford and a superb strike from Martial, after Southampton’s positive approach had been rewarded in the form of a 12th-minute lead. 

The highest compliment you can pay the manager is that there are shades of the 1995-96 season, when established stars Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis were let go and youngsters including Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers were trusted by Alex Ferguson.

This season, Rashford (21 goals in 38), Greenwood (16 goals in 43) and Martial (21 goals in 41) have produced performances that suggest they are capable of leading the United attack for years to come, with the French star the oldest of the three at 24. Though again, it’s necessary to return to that word: ‘potential’.

There were worrying signs for United too though. They were sloppy defensively and the manner in which they sat back and allowed Southampton to control the dying stages meant the 96th-minute equaliser felt deserved when it came.

It was a reminder that this side are a work in progress. Paul Pogba is among the most talented players in the Premier League, but there have been too many off nights in his Man United career and Monday was another. The fact that Solskjaer chose to substitute him in the 63rd minute was telling.

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The World Cup winner and Bruno Fernandes — a strong contender for signing of the season — have generally complemented each other well in recent weeks, but both must show greater consistency if they are to become part of United’s established midfield going forward.

The defence too has room for improvement. Their concession of 35 goals in 35 games isn’t a poor record by any means, but there have been times throughout the campaign where the likes of David de Gea, Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf have looked less than convincing and been guilty of glaring individual errors.

The club are undoubtedly moving in the right direction, as recent results attest, but failure to qualify for the Champions League, which looks a distinct possibility after Monday’s Man City news coupled with the Saints setback, would be a serious blow to their ambitions.

Would their better players be happy sticking around for an another season outside of Europe’s premier club competition? Will it be feasible to attract the signings they want in the summer without this notable attraction?

United’s fate is still in their hands, of course. They are fifth as it stands, behind Chelsea and Leicester by a point and goal difference respectively.

Their final game of the season against the Foxes increasingly looks like it could be a de facto Champions League play-off.

It would a shock if they didn’t pick up a win on Thursday against Crystal Palace, with Roy Hodgson’s side having a torrid time since the lockdown ended, losing their last five games on the bounce

They also should have too much for relegation-threatened West Ham, though it would be quite a story if David Moyes came back to haunt his former club.

The other teams with the best chance of a top-four spot, Chelsea (Norwich, Liverpool and Wolves) and Leicester (Sheffield United and Tottenham) have some tricky games coming up, so it will be a fascinating two weeks.

Either way, it’s clear that United are still a long way off the glory days of the Fergie era, notwithstanding the hype of recent weeks.

The same could be said of Obafemi, who was accused last November of “lacking professionalism” by Saints boss Ralph Hassenhuttl.

After the Irish youngster’s goal extended the Saints’ run to four games unbeaten last night, the manager told reporters: “I’m happy for him because it’s not always easy for him.

“He came in and scored a fantastic goal. I’m very happy for him.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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