On Tuesday night, North triumphed over South as Manchester United obliterated Southampton 9-nil. The game boasted seven different goal scorers (eight, if you include the own goal) and was United’s biggest win since the same result against Ipswich in 1995, where Andy Cole netted a commendable four goals. So, what does this mean for United fans? There is nothing quite like the induced ecstasy of seeing your side achieve something that most sides won’t even come close to doing for decades. Even BT Sport’s slightly weird, morbid post-match “analysis” couldn’t dampen the spirits of United fans everywhere. The entire conversation was centred around a (wrong) decision to send off Southampton defender Filip Bednarek, resulting in a seventh goal for Solskjær’s men. Glenn Hoddle sounded like he needed new batteries as over and over and over again he repeated the same point about how the laws of the game are in desperate need of change. I did not disagree with Hoddle, but that’s a conversation for another time. My question is, where does this leave Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Manchester United? Are they actually serious title contenders?
It’s difficult being a football fan; your imagination runs wild sometimes.
A couple of weeks ago, Manchester United fans were exercising a similar euphoric high to last night – one reminiscent of the kind in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993). Yes, I’d imagine taking heroin is quite similar to being top of the league. The thing I hear about heroin is that the high is short lived. What follows are a series of excruciating symptoms. Mood changes. Insomnia. Aches and pains. Fever. Cravings. The sort of things that losing to Sheffield United at home can do to you. It is amazing how quickly the narrative changes. You try despairingly not to catastrophize the situation, but it is no good. There is just no denying that the wound inflicted by the Blades, followed by a dismal draw at Arsenal really undermined Manchester United’s title credentials. On the other hand, Tuesday nights 9-0 thumping of the Saints added a few more grains of salt to the stew.
It feels as though something might be bubbling behind the scenes at United. There must be a cauldron behind the doors at Old Trafford, one being stirred by dark, mischievous forces. A concoction able to twist, wrench and wring the hearts, souls and minds of the Red Devil faithful. The ingredients of such concoction? Lips of Mino Raiola, the contents of Marcus Rashford’s lunchbox, the remains of Solskjær’s chicken Korma and a solitary, sparkling tear of a scouser. Who knows? Whatever it is, it created a lethal end product: Hope. You know, that thing that ‘kills you in the end’? Something capable of making you salivate, though it can leave you with a deeply bitter sourness that is never quite capable of departure.
Maybe, just maybe, I’m being dramatic. Manchester United are doing quite well. Better than last season. Until recently, I really didn’t want to acknowledge that they are in a title race. Why? Fear. Disappointment. Despondency. The two games before Southampton provided these in abundance. The last time United won the league was the 2012-13 season, where they finished eleven points clear of Manchester City, securing the title with four games to spare. Do I have the same feeling and belief as I did that season? Not a chance. I’m not too sure that anybody really thinks Manchester United will be standing strong at the summit of the Premier League table when the season is over.
I can see this title race playing out like that famous scene with Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Solskjær, followed by Pep Guardiola, sneaks into an empty Anfield stadium carrying bags of sand. Slowly, carefully, Ole switches the bags in place of the gleaming Premier League trophy. Suddenly, everything starts to rumble: BOOM! (Jürgen Klopp, is that you?) The stadium starts to crumble. Ole, followed even more closely by Pep, darts for the exit, trophy in hand, dodging flying arrows fired through the walls of the crypt installed for the corpse of Virgil van Dijk. He is getting closer and closer to those famous Shankly Gates, which are slowly but surely shutting. Will he make it? Guardiola is almost there; he swings across the gaping hole in the ground using a rope made from old “support for Luis Suárez” t-shirts that have been tied together.
“Throw me the rope!” Shouts Ole.
“Throw me the trophy”, Pep retorts.
“No time to argue. Throw me the trophy; I throw you the rope”.
With options scarce, the exchange happens, followed by a dark unsettling grin that envelops Guardiola’s face.
I’m sorry reader. Did I digress? Overly dramatic again? It’s difficult being a football fan; your imagination runs wild sometimes. The truth is, I don’t think the scene that played out there is too dissimilar from what will actually happen. I think that Manchester City and Pep Guardiola will quite literally run away with the Premier League title this year. After a rusty start, the cogs seem to be turning again in a well-oiled City machine. Maybe that is pessimistic of me, but I don’t mind that. I’m tremendously happy living in my bubble of doubt. It’s safe in here.
Manchester United fans still have bundles to be excited about. The team are playing good counter-attacking football in a league where no result is foreseeable. Are United really reaping the rewards for backing their manager? Following United’s 3-1 win at Everton in November, a fuming Solskjær said: ‘They are not going to have the pleasure of seeing us lose again’. Credit to the man, he has been true to his word for the most part (especially away from home) and that deserves a Bruno Fernandes tip of the hat in my eyes.
Ultimately, who knows what will happen. I am just going to sit back and enjoy the chaos. After all, ‘that’s why they call it The Jungle, sweetheart’.