Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his Manchester United players milked the moment after completing a 2-0 derby win over Manchester City at Old Trafford. It wasn’t a complete lap of honour, but three out of four stands wasn’t bad, and nobody in a red shirt was rushing off the pitch. Why would they?
It is way too early to suggest that United’s victory signalled a shifting in the balance of power in Manchester from blue to red — United are still fifth, 12 points behind second-placed City — but Solskjaer and his players celebrated on the pitch at the end because they knew that this victory was a significant moment for the club.
“We feel we are improving as a squad and a team,” Solskjaer said. “It shows we are on track and we are improving, and that we are Manchester United.
“We are closing in on the teams in front of us, but we are still fifth. We need points to catch Chelsea and Leicester, so [we] need to keep plugging away.
“But the desire, attitude, commitment, connection between fans and players pleased me most.”
When City beat United in the FA Cup semifinals at Wembley in 2011, it was a pivotal moment that injected Roberto Mancini’s team with the confidence and self-belief that they could win major honours and emerge from United’s shadow.
In years to come, United’s victory in this game could have a similar resonance for Solskjaer and his players because there was, finally, a sense of everything coming together for the red side of Manchester against the team — City — that has dominated for the best part of a decade.
United were resolute and organised at the back, where Luke Shaw continued his renaissance and Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire once again showed themselves to be smart buys last summer. In midfield, Fred was the player everyone hoped he would be when he arrived almost two years ago — the busy, tenacious star of a tough Shakhtar Donetsk team — while Nemanja Matic made a mockery of his absence from the team for the majority of the first half of this season.
Then there was Bruno Fernandes, United’s new talisman, who extended his unbeaten run to eight games since his £67 million January arrival from Sporting Lisbon. Fernandes made Martial’s opener with a clever lob from a well-worked free kick and also dominated his area of the pitch, showing himself to be United’s creative force. Thanks to Fernandes, the still unfit Paul Pogba has become a forgotten man who will struggle to get anywhere near this team when, or if, he plays again this season.
Up front, United are still a work in progress, especially with Marcus Rashford sidelined with a back injury, but the pace of Martial and Daniel James troubled City all day long and was key to the home side’s win. But while United were impressive, vibrant and hungry, some perspective is required.
City were without their best player, Kevin De Bruyne, due to injury and Pep Guardiola’s team have inevitably lost impetus in the league with leaders Liverpool 25 points clear and the gap to fifth-place a sizable 12 points. Motivation cannot be easy with such a gulf between top and fifth and it showed in the performances of the likes of Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero and Ederson, who was directly at fault for both goals.
“The reality is that the pressure is not on the Premier League,” City midfielder Bernardo Silva said. “We know the position isn’t going to change a lot, so maybe that is a thing.
“But it’s an important game for the fans, we know that, and it is not acceptable to play like we did today.”
City are still on course in the Champions League and FA Cup, having already won the Carabao Cup against Aston Villa last week, so perhaps their focus has shifted to the knockout competitions now that there is little or nothing to play for in the Premier League.
Still, United have suffered from a mental block against City in recent seasons, especially since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, so beating them in this fixture was a huge result, regardless of City’s mentality and desire. More importantly, the win has also put United firmly back in the hunt for Champions League qualification.
The Red Devils now sit three points behind fourth-placed Chelsea and just five adrift of third-placed Leicester, who have lost four of their past seven league games. United still travel to Leicester in a potential decider on the final game of the season.
Qualifying for the Champions League would help United and Solskjaer to accelerate their resurgence and increase the prospect of a challenge for major honours next season. They are still some distance from being in that bracket, but this victory against City has given them a platform, maybe even a launchpad, for bigger and better things sooner rather than later.