Ordinarily, Burnley v Manchester United wouldn't be the sort of match that receives much attention from those without a vested interest in either team.

A somewhat local encounter it may be, Burnley perhaps aren't – with all due respect – the sort of team that attracts swathes of neutrals.

Nevertheless, Tuesday's fixture at Turf Moor holds genuine significance for United as it provides them with the opportunity to go top of the Premier League.

Granted, it may only be January 12 and we aren't quite at the halfway point of the season, but such an opportunity represents real progress.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men go into the match – which was postponed at the start of the campaign due to United's run to the Europa League semi-finals – level on points with the Liverpool, who they host at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Once the leading power in the Premier League under Alex Ferguson, United have not been at such a level for a while – could this be the start of a sustained resurgence?

A long time coming

In Solskjaer's pre-match news conference, he initially downplayed the importance of going top in January, suggesting such matters were trivial until March or April.

Yet, he also made a point of telling the team that it is time United establish themselves as title challengers again.

It would be generous to suggest they have been worthy of that distinction at any point since Ferguson's retirement in 2013.

Their highest finish during this time was second in 2017-18, though United finished 19 points adrift of a devastating Manchester City side that looked like champions-elect for much of the season as they amassed a record 100 points.

Indeed, United have been top of the table for a grand total of 51 days in the post-Ferguson era – 41 of those were under Jose Mourinho, eight with Louis van Gaal and just two during David Moyes' ill-fated reign.

The last time they finished the day top of the Premier League table was in August 2018, though considering their 2-1 win over Leicester City was the sole game on the very first day of the season and they did not retain their place for 24 hours, one has to ask whether that even counts.

But what most highlights the strides Solskjaer has made is the fact that none of those previous 51 days at the summit were this far into a season.

Of course, Burnley could yet pull off an upset and United may finish the season without ever sitting in top spot – or this could be a watershed moment for them and Solskjaer.

The Fernandes factor

Every team needs its talisman and even the most ardent United supporter will surely admit any title challenge would be impossible without Bruno Fernandes.

The Portugal midfielder's influence since joining United at the end of the January 2020 transfer window has been nothing short of remarkable.

While Liverpool have certainly not been without personnel issues, Fernandes has more than played his part in bridging the gap.

When we look at the Premier League table during Fernandes' time in England, United sit top with 65 points from 30 games, three clear of Liverpool who have played a game extra.

United's 19 wins is a league high and their three defeats is the lowest over the same time period, while only Liverpool (66) have scored more than their 63.

They might already be way out in front without the defensive issues that have intermittently reared their head, though few would accuse the team of lacking character – United have claimed 25 points from losing positions since Fernandes' first game.

'On the road is where I really come alive'

If there's one thing Solskjaer's Man United and The Office character David Brent have in common, it's that they relish life on the road.

United's record away from home over the past year has been in a league of its own, as they are unbeaten in 14 games away from Old Trafford.

It's also away from home where their never-say-die attitude has been most prominent. They seldom see a foregone conclusion when they fall behind, with 20 of their 36 points on the road coming from being at least a goal down. That's double any other team.

If you want the rainbow, you've got to put up with the rain, but thankfully for United they are yet to slip up on their travels since February.

They are averaging 2.6 points per away game, with no other side managing more than 1.7.

Solskjaer won't be counting on a free ride at Turf Moor on Tuesday, but he will surely expect at least the point they need to go top.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said he is excited by the openness of the Premier League title race this season as the Red Devils eye silverware.

United visit Burnley on Tuesday level on 33 points alongside rivals and defending champions Liverpool atop the table, and with the chance to move to the summit having played a game less.

Liverpool cruised to Premier League glory by 18 points last season, but only a point separates the leaders and third-placed Leicester City this term, while Chelsea are just seven points adrift in ninth position through 17 rounds.

Solskjaer is relishing the competitiveness as United seek to win their first Premier League trophy since 2012-13.

"I think all the teams want to take a grip on the Premier League, of course," Solskjaer told reporters.

"But it's just that kind of season, kind of year, kind of situation where there will be ups and downs, less consistency in results and performances.

"For me, it's exciting. As a supporter or as a fan, it's more interesting, of course, when there are more teams in and around each other compared to last season, where one just ran away."

Once English football's leading power under Alex Ferguson, United have spent just 51 days top of the table since the legendary Scottish manager retired in 2013.

The last time United finished a day at the summit was the very first of the 2018-19 season after beating Leicester 2-1 – their meeting was the only game that day, and the Manchester club were knocked off top spot by the end of that weekend.

United are unbeaten on the road in the top flight in 16 games and Burnley have not won successive league meetings with the Red Devils since 1968.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has already forced the postponement of fixtures – Solskjaer said: "I think it's going to be very important if you've managed to keep a fit squad. It's not just about fitness injury-wise, of course – it's also the COVID. You can see teams being really badly hit at times.

"Our boys have done well in that regard. We've not really lost many. The players themselves have done better. 

"You've got less things to do outside football than you might. You stay at home, you rest and recover and maybe for your own mental health you do some things back in your own gym. You're working and looking after yourself. I think that's also a factor here.

"I don't think they'd be going out too much anyway, but you've got no chance of going out [at the moment]. Hopefully they'll find out that we can live this way for the rest of our careers and get the most out of our careers!"

Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer says Edinson Cavani is "ready to go" for Tuesday's Premier League clash with Burnley following his recent ban, but Paul Pogba is a doubt. 

Cavani was suspended for three matches and fined £100,000 by the Football Association for posting a message in response to an Instagram story after he scored twice in United's 3-2 comeback win at Southampton on November 29.

The post from Cavani featured a Spanish word often used as a term of endearment in Latin America, with Cavani later apologising and deleting when he is said to have become aware the word could be construed as having racist connotations in English.

The former Paris Saint-Germain striker had been in good form before the ban, scoring three goals and creating two more for his team-mates from just two starts in the Premier League. Indeed, the Uruguay international has been involved in a goal every 59.4 minutes in the top flight this season.

United make the short trip to Burnley as the only side still unbeaten away from home in the Premier League this season, winning six of their seven games so far.

Another victory over Sean Dyche's Clarets will see United move three points clear of Liverpool – whom the Red Devils face on Sunday – at the league summit and Solskjaer has no doubts Cavani will be in a position to contribute. 

"Edinson has trained well when he's been banned," the United boss told a media conference. "He's had a couple days off as well, you can't train too much. He is ready to go. 

"He gives us a different option, he's a different type of forward to the others, so I'm glad to have him back, that's why we brought him in. 

"He's contributed really well so far. I'm sure he'll be really important for us until the end of the season. We feel the season starts tomorrow night."

Pogba, meanwhile, was absent from United's squad for the 1-0 FA Cup win over Watford on Saturday and Solskjaer confirmed a decision on his involvement at Turf Moor will not be made until Tuesday. 

"All of them trained today," he added. "Paul and Eric [Bailly, who went off injured against Watford with a neck issue] didn't do all of it but Luke [Shaw] and Victor [Lindelof] did, so I've got a decent amount of players to pick from. Let's see with Paul and Eric how they are tomorrow."

While Solskjaer confirmed several fringe players may leave Old Trafford during the January transfer window, he suggested the club would only dip into the market themselves if a "long-term target" becomes available. 

"January is always difficult but if something comes up about a long-term target, that's another scenario," he said. 

"Not many teams want to lose their players in January, so it's unlikely something will happen on the 'in' side. 

"There might be a few players going out. For one thing, they deserve to play more football for their own good and their own careers."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has urged Manchester United to finally establish themselves as Premier League challengers once again as they aim to go top of the Premier League table against Burnley on Tuesday.

After a somewhat shaky start to the season, United have steadily climbed up the table and head into their next Premier League game level on 33 points with defending champions Liverpool, who have played a game more.

Indeed, ever since the start of 2020-21 United have been playing catch-up due to their involvement in the extended Europa League campaign last term, and Tuesday's contest will finally see them back on level footing in terms of matches played.

Once English football's leading power under Alex Ferguson, United have spent just 51 days top of the table since the Scottish manager retired in 2013.

The last time they finished a day at the summit was the very first of the 2018-19 season after beating Leicester City 2-1 – their meeting was the only game that day, and United were knocked off top spot by the end of that weekend.

Solskjaer was eager to play down the importance of being top in January, though he did accept United have to take this chance to confirm themselves as challengers again.

"We're better off this season than we were at this stage last season; we've scored more goals, won more games, played better football," he told reporters on Monday. "Nobody remembers who's top on January 12, and for us it's about developing the team - we're progressing and we've shown we can bounce back from disappointment.

"We're improving. It's been since [Ferguson] left [that United challenged]. We've been second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth seventh, so it's up to us to establish ourselves among the top four. We've only been there three times since Ferguson left."

It was then put to Solskjaer that the inevitable comparisons of every Man United team with Ferguson's era might be unfair, and the Norwegian seemingly agreed, adamant the Premier League is an entirely different landscape in 2021.

"It's a different ball game to when I was a player," he said. "We were disappointed if we didn't win the league. But now so many teams consider themselves candidates.

"The league table doesn't really matter now, you pick up points and when you get to March, April, that's when the league is going to be decided.

"We knew this would be a difficult season for us, we had to catch up. I said we needed to hang in there, but that's not what I meant.

"I meant we had to pick up points and get performances right, don't let teams run away with it. We've done well."

The omens look good for United ahead of their trip to Turf Moor – they are unbeaten on the road in the top flight in 16 games and Burnley have not won successive league meetings with the Red Devils since 1968.

Their next game after Burnley is a mouth-watering clash with Liverpool at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer described Scott McTominay as a "monster of a human being" after his goal sealed a 1-0 win over Watford in the FA Cup third round on Saturday. 

McTominay, captaining United at Old Trafford, headed home Alex Telles' corner in the fifth minute to secure United's 34th victory from their last 36 third-round ties. 

It was the Scotland international's fourth goal of the season in all competitions, one short of his best tally in a single campaign (five goals in 37 appearances last term).

"Scott has had a very good season," Solskjaer told BBC Sport. "He is being more and more dangerous, we know he can be a box-to-box midfielder.

"He should have scored a few more on set-plays before now because he is a monster of a human being. I am very happy he got the goal."

United did not have it all their own way against the Hornets, who attempted 18 shots in the match – the second-most they have had away from home this season. 

"The most important thing in the cup is that you go through so that will make everyone happy but the first 15-20 minutes I think were the highlights of our game," Solskjaer added. 

"I think we played some very good stuff, created chances and then we let them back into the game but we are through.

"I'm delighted we are through. I told them I didn't expect them to start like a house on fire. I expected them to grow into the game. The opposite happened more or less. We started brightly."

McTominay captained United for the first time and led by example, completing 45 of 56 attempted passes, creating one chance and making a joint team-high three clearances.

The 24-year-old told BT Sport: "When the manager told me it was a surreal moment. 

"I've been here since I had just turned five, so that's 18 or 19 years associated with the club and it is a huge honour. I love this club and it has been my whole life."

McTominay and goalkeeper Dean Henderson were the only two players to keep their places from the side that lost to Manchester City in the EFL Cup on Wednesday and the midfielder acknowledged a general lack of match fitness may have contributed to United's sluggish second-half display. 

"We started really well and then for the first half an hour we were really good, moved the ball really well and there was some good combination play," McTominay added.

"Then we couldn't find it after that as well. The second half I didn't think we played anywhere near our level.

"For the boys coming into the team it is difficult, they haven't played for a long time. The manager said 'get your rhythm' and he probably wasn't expecting the rhythm we got in the first 30 minutes. But then there were some tired minds, but credit to the boys."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has underlined his desire to keep Donny van de Beek at Manchester United despite a difficult start to his Old Trafford career.

Since arriving from Ajax in a reported £40million deal in pre-season, the Dutchman has made just eight starts in total, with only two of those coming in the Premier League.

That lack of action prompted Van de Beek's boss at international level, Frank de Boer, to suggest this week that the midfielder might need to move on in January in order to strengthen his chances of featuring in the Netherlands' European Championship squad.

However, Solskjaer has reiterated his faith in the 23-year-old and revealed he will be handed a rare opportunity to start when United face Watford in the FA Cup on Saturday.

"I've answered this question so many times," the Norwegian said.

"There are so many examples of players needing a little bit of time – quality players. We have many players ourselves and there are other clubs with examples. Sometimes it takes time. You don't expect people who care for him to be quiet at times, especially when they want the best for them.

"Donny is going to play tomorrow. There's another chance for him. Yes, I've spoken to him and reiterated and made him aware how much we rate him. But he'll play tomorrow, and that's a good chance to kick on."

One player who could be set for a January departure from Old Trafford is Timothy Fosu-Mensah.

The 23-year-old, who is out of contract at the end of the season, has made just three appearances this term, including one start.

And Solskjaer is open to the idea of allowing him to move on should the right offer arrive.

"I'm not sure if Tim is going to stay or [if] he's going to take an option now," he said.

"He's not played enough, so of course he's been allowed to speak to clubs, with a view to leaving now in January. It's difficult when you've got good players, talented players, and you can't give them game time.

"He's now at the stage where he needs to go and play again.

"It might be [at the] end of January, or it might be in the summer that he finds somewhere else. So, he's working hard, Tim, he's ready for a move for any club that he feels ready for."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has no doubt his Manchester United side are ready to bounce back to their EFL Cup disappointment against Manchester City when they host Watford this weekend.

The Red Devils were defeated 2-0 by Pep Guardiola's side at Old Trafford and have now lost each of the four semi-finals they have contested under Solskjaer.

Saturday brings another opportunity when United face the Hornets to start their FA Cup venture this season and Solskjaer expects his team to respond to this latest setback.

"The reaction has been as expected, of course you're disappointed when you go out, we wanted to go one step further but we've shown many times this season we can bounce back after a disappointment," he told a news conference ahead of the third-round tie.

"We did it after defeat against Arsenal, did it after we lost to Tottenham, after we went out of the Champions League - the boys have reacted well.

"I don't envisage anyone with any other mindset than we have to win. We enter the competition wanting to win.

"We have a few players with a few knocks, so there'll be a few changes, but I'll still field a team I feel confident in."

Odion Ighalo was drafted in as emergency cover a year ago following an injury to Marcus Rashford but his loan stint from Shanghai Shenhua comes to an end this month.

Solskjaer expects to give the striker game time against his former club, while he also offered an update on Argentine duo Sergio Romero and Marcos Rojo – both of whom are being tipped with January exits with their contracts to expire at the end of the season.

"It's special for him [Ighalo] against Watford, he will be involved," Solskjaer added.

"He's training really well, I don't know how many goals he scored today but by miles he was our top scorer in the round robin in training. 

"He's not lost sharpness or quality, it's difficult to be out of the squad of course. He did well until the summer. This season he's not had as many opportunities but he's never let himself down as a professional or a human being. 

"In training he always works hard. He's in the squad, hopefully I don't need to put him on to need goals but hopefully he can join in."

On Romero and Rojo, he added: "Both of them have contracts until the summer, they're not gonna be extended so we're looking for them to find clubs. 

"Marcos has been given time to go home, so he's still in Argentina. Sergio he has been back home as well to see family but he's back in England now. They're professionals, working hard and ready if they're called in for us. Marcos would have to travel in and do quarantine before."

Solskjaer, who confirmed Facundo Pellistri has tested positive for coronavirus but has not been involved with the first team, was asked about the worrying rise in COVID-19 cases across the Premier League.

The Norwegian acknowledged the growing concern for society but is keen for the competition not to be halted.

"First of all, you're worried what's happening in society and in and around the country," he said. 

"I personally feel safe within our bubble, I think we've taken all the steps that we've had to follow protocols, guidelines. The club have been good and the players are following the rules as well as they can. 

"Of course what's happening at different clubs and society is frightening, we have a duty to try and stay clear, stay within bubbles.

"I hope we can continue playing, I think it's [football] had a positive impact – I feel it as well at home when you don't have a game you're looking forward to watching football on the tele. The mental wellbeing of football has been a big positive, I think."

Manchester United have completed the signing of teenage winger Amad Diallo from Atalanta, and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reckons he has landed a future star. 

Diallo has signed a four-and-a-half-year contract, tying him to the Premier League giants until June 2025.

United's pursuit of Diallo began in 2016 and the 18-year-old has since broken through in Serie A, playing five first-team games and scoring once for Atalanta. 

A deal had been agreed in October and now a work permit has been secured that allows the move to take place. 

United said, in a statement on their website, that Diallo would join up with them as soon as he receives a visa.

Reports have indicated the transfer will cost United £37million, but Solskjaer believes they are getting a rare talent. 

Solskjaer said: "As a club, we have followed Amad for a number of years and having watched him myself, I believe he is one of the most exciting young prospects in the game. 

"Manchester United has such a proud history of developing young players and everything is in place to enable Amad to reach his potential here. 

"It will take time for him to adapt but his speed, vision and fantastic dribbling ability will stand him in good stead to make the transition. He is a player with all of the raw attributes that are needed to be an important player for Manchester United in the years to come." 

Diallo is relishing his big chance at United, saying: "After waiting since the summer, it is finally a dream come true to complete my move to Manchester United. I am hugely ambitious and there is so much that I want to achieve in the game; when I spoke to the manager I knew that I had joined the perfect club. 

"This is a really exciting squad with so many great players, I can promise that I will work hard every day to learn from them and give everything to develop my game. The coaches have been fantastic since I signed, we have been in touch regularly and they have already given me a lot of great advice. 

"I have had time to prepare for this move, both physically and mentally, and I have worked really hard to be ready to make the step up to this amazing club."

Paul Pogba has warned Manchester United they will continue to fall short of winning the "big stuff" if they do not improve on "details" after losing to Manchester City in the EFL Cup semi-final thanks to two set-pieces.

City became only the second side to reach four successive finals in the competition on Wednesday, while it was a third semi-final elimination in four EFL Cup campaigns for United.

On top of that, it was a fourth consecutive semi-final defeat for United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer across all competitions, having fallen to City in the same competition in 2019-20 as well as losing to Chelsea and Sevilla in the FA Cup and Europa League respectively.

United have made undoubted progress under Solskjaer, as evidenced by the fact a point against Burnley next Tuesday will take them top of the Premier League for the first time since the opening day of the 2018-19 season – their 2-1 win over Leicester City was the only game that day.

But Pogba has warned United they will not win the biggest matches if they do not sharpen up around certain situations, with City's two goals on Wednesday coming from dead-ball situations.

Speaking to MUTV, the France international said: "It is disappointing because it is not the first one against City at home. We are disappointed with the result, obviously, with the two goals from set-pieces.

"It is very annoying to lose because there is a trophy behind all of this. We have to do better, we have to do better for sure. It is about details.

"Details make the difference all of the time and now when it is big games like this, it is details and at set-pieces we lost. We have to learn because it is not the first time.

"We have to learn, we have to get through this because, after this, there are big games coming up. Next time, we will do better, we will do better.

"We are improving. Last year they [City] were obviously more dominant and they dominated us [in the first leg of the EFL Cup semi-final]. That wasn't the case [this time], so obviously we are improving.

"We are improving in the league and, even though we lost in the semi-final, we are still going far and that is what we want. But now it is about details. It is good to improve but we have to go to the next step now, all of us."

Up next for United at the weekend is an FA Cup clash with Championship side Watford, before then going to Burnley for their rearranged fixture from the start of the season on Tuesday, and a top-of-the-table showdown with Liverpool follows that.

Pogba looked to remind the team that they cannot afford to mope in the wake of defeat to City given the importance of the games on the horizon.

"There is no time to be disappointed for a week because we know where we are. We are in a good position now. We don't have time to be disappointed. We don't have the time. We will get through this and we will go again," he added.

"It is difficult, and it is going to be difficult, and you learn from these games. It is going to hopefully help us to get through, to get better and to have a positive result in the next games.

"Football and playing for Man United is not easy, it will never be easy, but it makes the victory prettier and more beautiful when we get through a tough time, then we get through this.

"It is beautiful, and you get the emotion. That is all we want. That is what the fan wants, that is what the team wants, everyone wants this. The club is built on winning and big things, so that is all we want to get – the big stuff."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer put Manchester United's latest semi-final heartbreak down to facing "probably the best team in England" rather than a psychological issue after their derby defeat to Manchester City.

John Stones scored his first City goal since November 2017 early in the second half and Fernandinho sealed a 2-0 EFL Cup victory seven minutes from time at Old Trafford on Wednesday.

United had just two shots on target as they suffered a fourth semi-final defeat out of four since Solskjaer took over as manager.

City looked ominous once again as they extended their unbeaten run to 12 matches, setting up a showdown with Tottenham at Wembley, where they will be favourites to win the competition for a sixth time in eight seasons on April 25.

Solskjaer was disappointed by the way United conceded but gave great credit to Pep Guardiola's in-form side.

"Manchester City can score many great goals. You can accept that. When you concede two simple set-plays, it's very disappointing. Just not good enough in those moments," he told Sky Sports.

"We didn't create enough big chances. They didn't either. We didn't have the extra finesse we've had in the games lately, we weren't good enough.

"We played against a very good Manchester City team, they played well. When they play well you have to play very well to beat them. We were just lacking that little bit."

Yet Solskjaer does not see any need to read too much into the Red Devils' record in semi-finals during his reign.

"We're getting closer. This is a much better version of United than a year ago in those semis," he added.

"It's not psychological [losing another semi-final]. Sometimes you meet good teams in the semis. At the moment, City are probably the best team in England."

As Manchester City's players huddled around the centre circle in number eight shirts to pay a poignant pre-match tribute to Colin Bell, it occurred a Pep Guardiola team might never have been so fittingly dressed.

England international Bell, widely revered as the finest player in City's history, passed away after a short illness on the eve Wednesday's 2-0 Manchester derby win the semi-final of the EFL Cup.

Bell, according to the loud and often repeated refrain of the Kippax Stand at City's old Maine Road home, was the greatest inside forward that the world had ever seen.

A technically gifted all-round midfielder, somehow simultaneously graceful and powerful, Bell thrived in those dangerous pockets between winger and centre-forward to cause maximum damage in Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison's celebrated City teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The inside forward had long gone out of fashion before Pep Guardiola ushered in his era of "free eights". From Xavi and Iniesta, through Thiago Alcantara and Toni Kroos to David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, City's former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss delights in filling his side with such players.

During Sunday's swaggering 3-1 win over Chelsea, De Bruyne was joined in the line-up by Phil Foden, Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva. That quartet of playmakers probably would have resumed duties together at Old Trafford had Silva not been suspended.

After paying tribute to City's eternal eight, Guardiola's team of number eights got to work. Where the league fixture on this ground a month ago was as stodgy as the pitches Bell graced in his heyday, the pop and fizz to the early passing was much more in "Nijinsky's" image.

During Fred's early months in the Premier League, it would be fair to say many Manchester City fans will have felt their team had dodged a bullet.

Prior to his move to the red side of Manchester, speculation was rife that Pep Guardiola had identified Fred – at Shakhtar Donetsk back then – as a long-term replacement for Fernandinho in midfield.

Fred had made a reputation for himself as an effective box-to-box midfielder who could have an impact on the ball as well as off it.

But it was difficult to see what possessed Manchester United to pip City to his reported £55million signing during the 2018-19 season, as he struggled with the tempo of the game and didn't appear to offer anything particularly outstanding to any part of the United unit.

However, as the past year or so – especially this season – highlights, Fred has become one of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's most-trusted individuals.

As United welcome City to Old Trafford in Wednesday's EFL Cup semi-final, Fred has another chance to show why that is the case.

MR DEPENDABLE?

Fred may have only started 10 of United's 16 Premier League games this term, but a telling pattern emerges when you look at which matches they were.

Among those games, he was in Solskjaer's line-up for outings against Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, Southampton, City, Leeds United, Leicester City and Aston Villa.

All of those are, of course, either 'big six' rivals or teams pushing to be in the upper echelons of the Premier League this term. He was brought on at half-time in the 6-1 demolition by Tottenham, and while he hardly held Spurs at bay, they were at the very least less rampant in the second half.

It cannot be a coincidence that these are the type of matches Fred has been used in most often, with Solskjaer clearly valuing the midfielder's off-the-ball qualities as United regularly look to absorb pressure and spring counter-attacks.

That will likely be the tactic again as United host EFL Cup holders City in Wednesday's semi-final, a one-legged repeat of last season's two-match tie in the same round.

A year on from the 2019-20 first leg, Solskjaer will be hoping for a rather different outcome, as City – opting to go with a false nine – overran United's midfield and battered them at Old Trafford that day, deservedly winning 3-1.

There will likely be just four players from the United starting XI of the game a year ago who line up on Wednesday, with Fred one of them. The upheaval in the squad has been significant, but it's telling that the Brazilian is one of those still playing a role, and an important one at that.

He may have let himself down again with a red card against Paris Saint-Germain, but it seems Solskjaer accepted responsibility over that incident.

FRED THE FACILITATOR

It seems highly unlikely Fred will ever be in the running for any of the Premier League's end-of-season individual awards – he doesn't score or create enough, and you cannot say his influence is anything like that of N'Golo Kante in the title-winning Leicester City side.

But, one player who surely will be a candidate for individual gongs is Bruno Fernandes, and players like him need colleagues like Fred in order to thrive.

The Brazil international is well-rounded and has the technical ability to lend support in offensive situations, such as his neat interchanges with Paul Pogba against Aston Villa last time out.

But Fred is undoubtedly at his most effective when his side are not in possession, with his 49 tackles more than any other United or City midfielder in all competitions this term.

It's a similar story with his interceptions count. Fred has made 30 in 2020-21, five more than Rodrigo, who ranks second among the United and City engine room players. That is despite Fred despite playing over 400 minutes less than City's Spain international. Of course, City generally have more of the ball than United, but it still highlights Fred's awareness.

Critics might point out his 12 key passes is a rather meagre total, but with Bruno Fernandes (69) creating chances with such frequency, one could argue it doesn't matter – after all, Fred isn't being put in the team to be a creator.

Curiously, in the league since January 1 last year, United actually have a worse win percentage (50) with Fred in the starting XI than they do without him (71.4), though this is clearly skewed by the fact he is often reserved for games against better opposition.

But what is notable from this time period is United concede fewer shots - 10.3 per game - on average when Fred starts. That goes up to 12.1 shots per 90 minutes when he's not in the first XI – while the team's own shots count increases from 12.4 to 15 each game with the Internacional youth product in the side.

Opta's advanced passing data also reflects favourably on Fred, particularly with respect to starting three open-play sequences that ended in a goal, which is the joint second highest in the Premier League this term.

He has also initiated four open-play passing sequences that led to a shot, which only Luke Shaw, Harry Maguire and Fernandes can better in the Red Devils' squad.

UNNOTICED, UNDER-APPRECIATED, BUT NOT USELESS

Fred is perhaps the sort of player many would consider dispensable, and maybe he is in certain matches. Rarely does he stand out as an individual, certainly not to the extent of say Fernandes and Marcus Rashford, and much of his work can go unnoticed.

But many of us inadvertently analyse players in isolation and by their individual numbers, rather than how they fit into the collective. Sure, Fred doesn't create many chances, but what he offers United off the ball is seemingly vital for Solskjaer.

Fred may not be the player a lot of United fans expected two and a half years ago, but he has certainly proven himself to be no dud.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer suggested Jurgen Klopp may have been trying to influence referees by discussing the penalties awarded to Manchester United.

Klopp felt Liverpool should have been awarded a penalty during Monday's 1-0 loss to Southampton, while highlighting how many spot-kicks United were awarded.

Under Klopp, Liverpool have been awarded 46 penalties in all competitions, including 30 in the Premier League. In that same time frame, and under three different managers, United have won 67.

Since Solskjaer became United manager in December 2018, United have been given 42 – with 27 in the league. Liverpool have had just 19 spot-kicks in all competitions in that time.

But Solskjaer, whose side host Manchester City in the EFL Cup semi-finals on Wednesday, dismissed the talk about United's penalties.

"That's a fact, probably. That's probably going to be my answer – that's a fact that we’ve got more than them," the United manager told reporters.

"But maybe they should… well, we’ve had… I don’t know how many penalties they've had. I don't count how many penalties they have.

"So, if they want to spend time on worrying about when we get fouled in the box then I don't spend time on that."

Solskjaer suggested Klopp was trying to influence referees by discussing United's penalty record.

"I can't talk on behalf of other managers, why they say things like this," he said.

"Obviously I felt it worked last year in the FA Cup semi because Frank [Lampard, Chelsea head coach] spoke about it.

"We had a nailed-on penalty that we should have had and didn't get, so maybe it's a way of influencing referees."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is convinced Manchester United have developed significantly since suffering three semi-final defeats in 2019-20 as they prepare to host rivals Manchester City in the last four of the EFL Cup.

Had things gone a little differently last term, Man United might have ended the campaign with three trophy successes, breaking Solskjaer's duck as the club's boss.

But, United lost 3-1 to Chelsea in the FA Cup semis, suffered a late 2-1 defeat to Sevilla in the Europa League and fell at the same stage of the EFL Cup to City, losing 3-2 on aggregate.

The elimination by City was particularly chastening given the manner of the first-leg home loss, as United were swept aside and somewhat fortunate to only lose 3-1 – the 1-0 away win in the second meeting was insufficient to save their hopes.

But it could be argued there is a different aura to this United side. They are level on 33 points with pacesetters Liverpool in the Premier League but have played one game less, and they head into Wednesday's game unbeaten in seven across all competitions.

The EFL Cup semi-finals this season are limited to one-game affairs rather than being split over two, and Solskjaer is adamant United are a different animal.

"When you get to a semi, you've done a lot of good work to get there and naturally you're playing against better and better opposition," Solskjaer told reporters.

"I think we've improved immensely in a year since the last semi [against City] and even when we were in Europe in August.

"For me, it's a step closer to get to the final, we've developed a lot, it's easy to say, 'have we learned?' But it's not about if we've learnt, it's about some fine margins in those semi-finals as well.

"When you win games of football, you don't think about it's a semi-final or a normal game or a league game or a quarter final, you just think about this game and want to win it."

United have faced City six times since Solskjaer was initially installed as Jose Mourinho's replacement in December 2018 and, perhaps rather surprisingly, has the edge over Pep Guardiola in their head-to-head with three wins to two.

Their most recent meeting, just under a month ago, was a rather cagier 0-0 draw that had few conclusions drawn from it by most, though Solskjaer still felt there were signs of United's progression.

They have every reason to be wary again, however – City have progressed from their previous five EFL Cup semis and lost only twice in 23 games in the competition under Guardiola.

"I've seen progress," Solskjaer continued. "Sometimes the results don't show the whole picture of the game, some of our counter-attacking goals in the wins we've had have been brilliant; in the league away when we won, we could have scored four or five in a 10- or 15-minute period.

"A few counter attacks there were out of this world but we had less control of the ball and defended fantastically. I think the last game was more or less 50-50 in possession, maybe a more cagey game from both teams but still I felt that was a progression having stayed more in the game.

"You never know what kind of system he [Guardiola] is going to come up with but you know you've got to defend really well against Man City.

"It's hard to keep the ball in their half, they find a way of overloading, so you've got to be brave, compact, trust your players.

"When we have the ball, we have to be able to keep it, play out of their press because they're one of the quickest to put the counter pressure on and win the ball high up.

"So, it's a balance. We've found that balance. We didn't have the 'X factor' last game, maybe because they were a little bit more cagey and set up to counter attack more as well.

"They've been some fascinating games and I feel we've got closer and closer and results sometimes you can't control."

Former Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher has joined Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's coaching staff on a full-time basis.

Fletcher came through United's academy as he spent two decades at Old Trafford during his playing career. He returned to the club in October 2020, taking up the chance to coach the Under-16s.

The 36-year-old - who also had spells at West Brom and Stoke City, as well as winning 80 caps for Scotland - has now accepted a full-time role working with the first team.

"I am delighted to be returning to the club as a first-team coach," Fletcher told United's official website.

"It's a very exciting time for this young team and I am looking forward to taking the next steps in my coaching career by working with Ole and his staff."

Solskjaer is pleased to have Fletcher - who won five Premier League titles with United, as well as the FA Cup and the Champions League - on board.

"Darren has the United DNA running through his veins and he knows exactly what it takes to be a Manchester United player," Solskjaer said.

"He is at the start of his coaching career and his experience both on and off the pitch along with his winning mentality, commitment and hard work will be a great addition to the staff."

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