On a day when Donny van de Beek hoped to show why he deserves more minutes for Manchester United, up stepped Bruno Fernandes to show why that simply isn't happening.

The eye-catching selection of Van de Beek ahead of Fernandes for this FA Cup clash of giants at Old Trafford was all about "rotation", according to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

United's manager clearly felt his team could combat a faltering Liverpool team without their star man, albeit leaving him on the bench in case of emergency.

"Donny needs to be playing games as well and it's a big game for Donny to come into," Solskjaer told the BBC.

Van de Beek has not started a Premier League game since he was hauled off with United trailing at half-time at West Ham in early December, and he might not be starting any soon either given how this game transpired.

A 66th-minute switch of the Portuguese for the underwhelming Van de Beek proved pivotal, and the delightful free-kick from Fernandes that settled an absorbing game 3-2 in United's favour was one that had been conceived on Saturday.

"I think he stayed about 45 minutes after training yesterday shooting free-kicks, so I was quite confident that he was going to hit the target," Solskjaer said.

Solskjaer, the erstwhile supersub, knew the calibre of replacement that was up his sleeve, and the rotation worked in a roundabout way. Are we looking at more proof that United's once-maligned Norwegian boss is actually a tactical master?

Liverpool's season, meanwhile, takes another negative turn.

Donny fluffs his big chance

With a mere 18 passes and 23 touches, Van de Beek was peripheral in a midfield where Paul Pogba shone and Scott McTominay fought for every ball.

The former Ajax man had a glorious early chance to stamp his mark on the game when he burst into space on the right and looked sure to dart towards the penalty area, as Edinson Cavani waited for a pass in the centre.

But no. Van de Beek paused and decided to go backwards, and the chance was gone.

This game was a world away from the Anfield snore draw seven days previously in the Premier League, yet Van de Beek largely let it pass him by.

By the time Fernandes cracked his sublime winner into the right corner, Van de Beek must have been wondering when such an opportunity will arise again.

Salah shows he must start

Like Fernandes, Salah has seen his form and contribution questioned in recent weeks, and just as United's match-winner dispelled such criticism, so did Liverpool's main man.

After all the talk about front threes, and which of these sides had the most deadly attacking trio, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp went with a two-man strikeforce, Salah and Roberto Firmino linking up and Sadio Mane on the bench.

Both Salah and Firmino had been substitutes on Thursday for the defeat to Burnley, but they were a combination that United struggled to contain at times here.

Salah struck twice, the first a sublime chip, and Firmino set up both. The Brazilian has now assisted Salah for 18 goals during their time together at Liverpool, the most any player has set up another during Klopp's reign.

Unlike Firmino and Mane, Salah has exceeded his expected goals (xG) in the Premier League this season, with eight non-penalty goals from an xG of 5.3, and if Liverpool are to resurrect their season, the bench is surely no place for the Egyptian.

Glorious Greenwood

Mason Greenwood has not scored in the Premier League since that West Ham game, when he helped United turn their half-time deficit around and earn a 3-1 victory.

Here he looked lively from the early stages, albeit with one too many lollipops and insufficient tasty final product until he cancelled out Salah's opener.

The way the 19-year-old ended an 10-game barren spell spoke volumes of his belief, with Marcus Rashford's sweeping pass over the Liverpool defence finding his wing twin on the right and allowing Greenwood to thump a low shot past Alisson.

With Rashford also on target, this was quite a day to savour for the hosts.

Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer left Bruno Fernandes out of his starting line-up for Sunday's FA Cup clash with Liverpool.

Fernandes, who has been United's shining light since arriving from Sporting CP almost 12 months ago, was only a substitute for the fourth-round game.

This season he has scored 15 goals and supplied nine assists in 28 games across all competitions from his advanced midfield role, but there have been questions asked about his form in recent weeks.

He has just one goal and no assists in four Premier League appearances since the turn of the year.

Into the United team went former Ajax midfielder Donny van de Beek as Solskjaer decided the game presented a chance to rotate his squad, making five changes to the side that won 2-1 at Fulham on Wednesday.

Solskjaer explained why Fernandes did not start, saying on BBC One: "It's rotation in the squad.

"Donny needs to be playing games as well and it's a big game for Donny to come into.

"He's done nothing wrong when he's been around the club so I'm looking forward to seeing him in there."

Premier League leaders United also brought in goalkeeper Dean Henderson, centre-back Victor Lindelof, midfielder Scott McTominay and forward Marcus Rashford, as David De Gea, Eric Bailly, Fred and Anthony Martial dropped out.

Liverpool also showed five changes as Jurgen Klopp looked for a response to Thursday's shock 1-0 home defeat to Burnley, which ended a 68-game unbeaten run at Anfield in the Premier League.

Teenage centre-back Rhys Williams came in for the absent Joel Matip, while James Milner and Curtis Jones were selected as Xherdan Shaqiri and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain dropped to the bench.

Sadio Mane and Divock Origi were also substitutes as Klopp gave starts to Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, with the Old Trafford clash coming a week on from these two sides battling out a dreary goalless draw at Anfield in the league.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believes Manchester United's dressing room is being "driven to success" by Bruno Fernandes, Edinson Cavani and Paul Pogba.

United sit top of the Premier League table on 40 points, six clear of defending champions Liverpool, who Solskjaer's team face in the FA Cup fourth round on Sunday, seven days on from a 0-0 draw at Anfield.

Liverpool have been eliminated from the FA Cup by United more than they have any other opponent in the competition's history, though the Red Devils have lost two of their past three against the Reds in the competition.

Integral to United's recent success has been the form of Fernandes, who has scored 19 league goals and created a further 14 from 33 top-flight appearances since joining from Sporting CP last year.

Veteran campaigner Cavani, meanwhile, has netted five times in all competitions since arriving as a free agent in October, while United's club-record signing Pogba has enjoyed a resurgence after a difficult start to the campaign, and scored a superb winner against Fulham last time out.

Buoyed by the performances of Fernandes, Cavani and Pogba, Solskjaer sees his squad having experienced a drastic shift in mentality, comparing the trio's influence to that of his former United team-mates Roy Keane, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs.

"I think that runs through the squad and that's part of my thinking when you bring players in," Solskjaer told a news conference.

"You don't just bring big talents in, you research their character as much as you can to have the right types.

"Because there are always players who think 'there's a game next week and I'll still get my wages'. That's the mentality we had to get away from.

"I wanted players to come here to push the boundaries, the levels and drive it on from the inside. It can't come just from the outside. With players like Bruno, Edinson and Paul Pogba, I feel I have a dressing room that is driven to success. That makes my job easier – 100 per cent.

"When you talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. We had players here when I played – Roy Keane, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs – they drove it on.

"When they spoke you knew you had no leg to stand on to ­argue, because you knew that they did it every single day.

"That's what we need from our players. Many of us in the game have been in dressing rooms where people talk – but you think what are you ­talking about? 

"They talk the talk, but don't really walk the walk. But the players we're talking about – Pogba and Cavani and Bruno – they've been there, they know what it takes and they ­demand it off their team-mates."

The omens are good for United ahead of Sunday's encounter with their bitter rivals, who have reached the FA Cup fifth round only once during Jurgen Klopp's tenure.

United are also unbeaten in their past seven home games against Liverpool in all competitions (W3 D4) since a 3-0 loss in March 2014. They last had a longer unbeaten run against the Reds at Old Trafford between 1990 and 2000 (12 games).

Paul Pogba can make the difference for Manchester United and help them win the Premier League title this season, according to club legend Wayne Rooney.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side overcame an early deficit to defeat Fulham 2-1 on Wednesday, a result that moved them back to the top of the table. 

While Manchester City and Leicester City are just two points adrift – and defending champions Liverpool are six back with a game in hand - Rooney feels his former side have the strength in depth to last the distance. 

United's all-time leading scorer pointed to Bruno Fernandes and Edinson Cavani helping to add a winning mentality to the squad, though Rooney feels Pogba is key to their hopes of success.

"Over the last few years Man United haven't been ready to challenge for the title," Rooney, now appointed as permanent boss at Derby County, told the media on Thursday. 

"Where I think now, they've built a squad of players. Fernandes coming in has helped massively. Cavani, with that winning mentality, has helped massively - now the squad is challenging for the Premier League title.  

"I said six weeks ago to the coaches in the office that I felt Man United will win the league. I still feel that today - and Paul Pogba will have a massive part to play in that. 

"They have bought players in who have a winning mentality, who will relieve a bit of the pressure on Paul and let him do what he does best in showing his quality on the pitch."

Victory at Fulham means United are now unbeaten in their past 17 Premier League away games, equalling their longest ever such run on the road in top-flight history. 

Pogba scored the winner in the 65th minute, his sixth in the competition from outside the penalty area in his career but just the third he has managed with his left foot.  

Having lined up wide on the right in the 0-0 draw with Liverpool at the weekend, the France international was utilised in a deeper central midfield role at Craven Cottage, though still made the most passes in the opposing team's half of any player on the pitch, demonstrating his influence on proceedings.

Pogba, whose long-term future with the Red Devils still remains in some doubt, also managed the only goal of the game in the recent 1-0 triumph at Burnley.

Dimitar Berbatov hopes the "soap opera" surrounding Paul Pogba's future is at an end after becoming increasingly influential for Manchester United.

Pogba's agent Mino Raiola revealed in December - with a crucial Champions League clash with RB Leipzig looming on the horizon - that he expected the Frenchman to leave Old Trafford in 2021, albeit not during the January transfer window.

The midfielder, who is under contract until 2022, has by no means been a regular starter this season, though his impact on the team has grown considerably in recent weeks.

His winning goal against Burnley sent Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side top of the Premier League - a position they retained on Sunday thanks to a 0-0 draw away at reigning champions Liverpool.

Pogba was unable to take a late opportunity at Anfield that could have secured all three points, yet former Red Devil Berbatov has been impressed by what he has seen from a player he knows well.

"It's been a long time since I've seen him open on the pitch fighting, intercepting, reading the game," Berbatov told Stats Perform News.

"In the game against Liverpool, again, he continued on that trend for me. He was solid on the pitch again, trying to read and control the game, defending and intercepting.

"The chance that fell to him was because he was again in the box trying to score, though it didn't happen this time. Next time, it's going to happen.

"But as I said many times before, I hope that the TV soap opera over him - whether he's going or staying - is going to end, and we're not going to speak about that.

"I would like him to stay because I knew him back in the day, he was coming to train with us when he was still very young. You could see the talent straight away.

"If he's concentrated 100 per cent for the team, then he's on a level I think not many players can reach in the way he does."

United did not manage a shot on target in the first half against Liverpool, the first time they had failed to do so in a Premier League fixture since December 2019.

However, they posed a far greater attacking threat as the game wore on, Pogba and Bruno Fernandes drawing smart saves out of Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson after the break.

For Berbatov, the crucial aspect for the visitors was not to be beaten by potential title rivals.

"United had a good game, a solid game. I think I said before the game to a couple of reporters that for them it was going to be important not to lose," said the Bulgarian, who won the Premier League twice during his time at United.

"They had good chances to score in the game as well, especially Pogba. That chance was probably the best one in the game, one where I was almost screaming, but it didn't happen.

"But it was a solid performance, especially in defence, tactically the discipline was there on the pitch. As I said, a couple of chances to score came up, as well.

"Probably, if you look from the perspective of a neutral, you can say that the draw was okay for both teams."

Manchester United's record against the so-called 'big six' of the Premier League this season reads zero wins, two defeats and two draws.

They have conceded seven goals, six of them at home to Tottenham, and scored just once – a Bruno Fernandes penalty two minutes into that 6-1 hammering in October.

Fernandes scored their previous goal in these encounters from the spot, too, in a 1-1 draw at Spurs last June. In fact, you have to go back to March 2020 and their 2-0 win at home to Manchester City, the last Old Trafford game played in front of a crowd, for the previous occasion that they scored a goal against a big-six team that wasn't a penalty.

They might be top of the league heading into Sunday's showdown with Liverpool but, for a manager that made an early habit of extracting big performances against the best sides, that stat should be of serious concern to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

 

BIG ZERO SIX

Since the end of the 2019-20 shutdown, United have played seven games against the big six and won none of them, if you include domestic cup losses to Chelsea and City.

In league football alone, they have drawn against Tottenham, Chelsea and City and lost to Spurs and Arsenal, with just two Fernandes penalties to show for it. All their previous three such games were at home and they have not scored in any of them.

In their first 14 league games against these sides under Solskjaer, United won six times and lost only four, scoring 16 goals and conceding 13 – a decent record given their real problems with consistency.

The strange thing is United's winless run against the best has coincided with a general upturn in form since the previous season restarted last June. Taking only results in that time into account, United have played 26, won 17, lost just three, scored 56 goals and conceded 30. That's the best record of any side in the league and seven points better than Liverpool.

In fact, narrow that down to results against teams in the top half of the table in the same time frame, and United have lost the fewest games (two) of any side, with 21 points taken from 13 games, just three behind Jurgen Klopp's side.

So, why the recent drop-off against the very best?

Solskjaer's most dependable attacking weapons have been Fernandes, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, all three of whom will almost certainly start at Liverpool, barring injury.

They were all involved in their last big-six contest in the league, a 0-0 draw at home to City in December. Rashford managed only one shot all game and created no chances for anyone else; Martial, a late substitute, created one chance but had no shots himself. Fernandes, ever the fulcrum of United's attack, had four shots and created two chances.

The previous game was a staid goalless draw with Chelsea that made the derby look positively thrill-a-minute. That day, with Martial banned, Rashford was more involved, with three attempts at goal and two chances created; he was outdone by Fernandes (three shots, four chances created).

They don't exactly look like imperious figures, but they actually fall in line with their per-90-minute numbers for this season. On average, Rashford attempts 2.7 shots per game and creates 1.3 chances; Martial has 2.9 shots and creates 1.2 chances; Fernandes musters 3.6 shots and creates 3.4 chances.

Put succinctly, based on this season's performances, Fernandes should be expected to create between three and four goalscoring opportunities in every league game he starts for United. In other words, he was bang on his average against City and Chelsea. Rashford's numbers are similarly close to the mean.

United's best attackers, then, are keeping their performance levels consistent against the big six. They're just meeting greater resistance. That becomes clearer looking at expected goals.

In their most recent three league games against these sides, United have had xG of 0.6 against City, 0.7 against Chelsea and a lowly 0.4 in a 1-0 loss to Arsenal. In those same fixtures in 2019-20, those figures were 1.6 (in a 2-0 win against City), 2.2 (in a 4-0 win over Chelsea) and 0.9 (in a 1-1 draw with Arsenal). Interestingly, though, Chelsea and Arsenal had higher xG numbers in those games last season, even though they suffered worse results, and City's only increased this term by 0.7.

This reflects a general balancing out in these matches. They are, for the most part, more attritional and less unpredictable affairs settled by fine margins – exactly the sort of contest you'd expect between true heavyweights. United are not significantly under-performing each time; they're just not quite tilting the odds in their favour.

How, then, might they change that against Liverpool? There is one simple way.

SLAB EXPERIMENT

United have one particular weakness, regardless of opposition: set-pieces. This season, they have conceded 11 goals from set-plays; only Wolves (12), Brighton and Hove Albion (14) and Leeds United (16) have a worse record. They have shipped four goals from corners, the same number as Liverpool, but the champions have only conceded eight times from dead-ball situations overall.

At the other end, United have scored 10 goals from set-pieces, a tally bettered by just four teams: Aston Villa and Southampton (11), and Chelsea and Liverpool (12). Only Chelsea (34) have created more dead-ball chances than United (31).

There is an argument to say they should have more set-piece goals than anyone else. It's an argument that centres around their captain – the man who might be the very thing United need to get back to scoring against, and winning against, big-six opposition.

Since the start of last season, Harry Maguire has won 73 per cent of his aerial duels in the Premier League. That's the best rate of anyone who has contested at least 300 in that time. In fact, he has lost only 98 of the 341 he has been involved in, which is the lowest number of losses across the same period within that elite group.

However, in an attacking sense, the world's most expensive defender doesn't seem to have his head on straight. Since the start of 2019-20, he has attempted 27 headed shots, hit the target with just nine of them, and scored with two. Of players with at least 20 headed shots in that time, only four have hit the target less often.

On Sunday, Maguire will face a Liverpool side without Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and possibly Joel Matip. He will rarely have a better chance of stealing a march at set-plays and, if he does, he could well end United's wait for a goal – and a win – against the best. Sometimes, those fine margins are the width of a forehead.

Manchester United have been so reliant on "fantastic" Bruno Fernandes that it can lead to inconsistent results and performances, according to John Barnes.

Fernandes has made an incredible impact for United since signing from Sporting CP a year ago and was on Friday named Premier League Player of the Month for a fourth time.

That was the first occasion any player has won the award four times in a single calendar year.

Fernandes will again be central to United's chances as they travel to Anfield to face champions Liverpool on Sunday holding a surprise three-point lead at the top of the table.

Liverpool great Barnes believes similarities can be drawn to the Reds side which ran through Philippe Coutinho and believes having one star dominating the ball does not always lead to the best results.

Barnes also feels there are signs United are adapting in their ongoing 11-game unbeaten run in the Premier League but believes the presence of Fernandes can still detract from other stars like Paul Pogba.

His views came after being asked whether Fernandes' signing was similar to that of Liverpool landing defender Virgil van Dijk.

"They have done it in a different way," Barnes said to Stats Perform News.

"Fernandes has come and he has dominated the game – Virgil doesn't dominate the game, doesn't dominate the midfield players or the front three, he doesn't want the ball all the time.

"He's not the focal point of the way we play, he calms them down psychologically but he isn't, 'Give me the ball, I'm going to do everything'.

"That's not what Virgil does, he gives enough sense of security, whereas that is what Fernandes does. 

"I suppose that probably adds to the inconsistency [for United]. It's a bit like when Coutinho was at Liverpool, when you have a player who's going to be a number 10, or a ball player who dominates.

"All the attacking impetus of the team - the ball has to go through him all the time. It takes away from the other players - maybe other players feel 'Every time we get the ball, we have to look for Fernandes'.

"Then what's going to happen to Pogba, [Anthony] Martial, [Marcus] Rashford and all these other players who also want to be the main player.

"So he does it in a different way and in many respects, I think that has probably added to the inconsistency of Man United because when he doesn't do it, or when he's not playing, United do miss him. 

"They miss him physically in terms of what he actually gives them. Whereas Liverpool miss Van Dijk psychologically. 

"The way Manchester United physically play is really dictated to by Fernandes. 

"Sometimes it really detracts from Pogba because Pogba wants to do that, and then you have got Martial and all the players who also want to get involved in that."

Barnes believes if Barcelona's Coutinho was to return to Liverpool it would not necessarily improve the team, despite his quality.

He added: "I'd liken it to Coutinho coming back which people talk about.

"Coutinho would be fantastic - the team wouldn't, because it will all be about him being the main player, getting man of the match and people saying he's the reason why we're winning because of the way he plays. 

"Fernandes is a fantastic player. And I think of late, if you look at him, I think he's become much more of a team player than he was early on. 

"That's probably helped him at Manchester United because you can see Pogba, you can see Rashford and Martial.

"In his first 13, 14 games, it was all about him [Fernandes], which meant that he was playing well, but Man United were inconsistent. So maybe they have addressed that."

Jurgen Klopp revealed he had already been wowed by Bruno Fernandes before Manchester United signed the man who has driven them to the top of the Premier League.

The deal to take Fernandes from Sporting CP to Old Trafford last January could eventually go down as one of the best pieces of business by an English club.

His arrival transformed United and sparked a surge into the Champions League places, and this season the playmaker is inspiring a title challenge. Klopp quipped that Fernandes was "unfortunately" proving a shrewd signing.

Since Fernandes' Premier League debut on February 1 last year, United have won more points than any other team in the top flight (68) – Manchester City and Liverpool have earned six fewer.

During that time frame the Portugal international has been involved in a league-high 33 goals (19 scored, 14 assisted) – Harry Kane is second on 29 (18 scored, 11 assisted) – and on Friday was named the competition's Player of the Month for the fourth time.

Klopp has been an admirer of Fernandes since he scored in a 2-2 draw against Liverpool for Sporting in a pre-season friendly at Yankee Stadium in July 2019.

"He's an outstanding player. Before he joined United we played Sporting in the USA on tour," Klopp said.

"In that game already you could see... wow! You could really see he was a difference maker and that's what he shows now.

"He's settled and is a very influential player now for United. He's involved in a lot of things. I know people talk mostly about the goal involvements, which is very important stuff, but he's a link-up in lot of other situations as well.

"I don't know him well enough to really judge but he seems to be a leader as well. So he was a good signing, unfortunately, for United."

United will go six points clear of Liverpool if they win on Merseyside, but Klopp's side have won the past two league clashes between the teams at Anfield and will go top if they triumph. Liverpool last reached three home victories in a row over their great rivals in March 2011.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has yet to beat Liverpool in the Premier League since joining United as manager, drawing twice and losing once. Only two managers in United's history have failed to win any of their first four league clashes with the Reds - John Chapman (1921-26) and Tommy Docherty (1973-76).

Klopp looked to play down the significance of the points perspective in this weekend's battle, saying: "Winning a football game and winning against United is enough itself.

"There's no extra add-on in that game because they're in the situation they are. They deserve the points they have so far and we have ours and the season has still a long way to go.

"We just try to win our games and we need to perform on our highest level because United are good and always were."

Klopp ruled injured midfielder Naby Keita out of the game but said centre-back Joel Matip was "close" to full fitness and suggested he could be involved, depending on how he trains.

Manchester United star Bruno Fernandes has won the Premier League Player of the Month award for the fourth time in his first year with the club.

Fernandes was confirmed as the winner of December's award on Friday, following up his success in November.

His fourth overall Player of the Month award means he is already level with United greats Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes, while just one behind Wayne Rooney's career tally.

Fernandes has closed to within three of the overall record held by Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero, who won seven.

The Portugal international is the first player to win the award four times in a calendar year.

He scored twice and added an assist in the 6-2 win against Leeds United while he also netted and set up a goal in the 2-2 draw at Leicester City on Boxing Day.

Fernandes additionally assisted key goals for Paul Pogba (against West Ham) and Marcus Rashford (against Wolves) over the course of the month.

The 26-year-old said: "Three goals and four assists was a complete month.

"Scoring and assisting your team-mates is perfect. I want to achieve other trophies and awards but I'm really happy to make history.

"It is a long way before we can start talking about being [Premier League] champions. We have to keep working. 

"We play against one of the best teams in England [Liverpool on Sunday] and we know what it means to the fans. But the main point is the same: three points."

Fernandes' team-mate Rashford was also on the shortlist along with Anwar El Ghazi, Emiliano Martinez, Ben Mee, Mohamed Salah, Tomas Soucek and John Stones.

Aston Villa boss Dean Smith was named Manager of the Month.

His side are just 10 points behind leaders United with two games in hand having secured wins over Wolves, West Brom and Crystal Palace in December, conceding just once in five games.

Carlo Ancelotti, Sean Dyche and United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were the other nominees.

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.

Bruno Fernandes believes a confident Paul Pogba can keep on getting better after the duo were influential in Manchester United's home win over Aston Villa.

The Red Devils claimed the lead when Anthony Martial scored just prior to half-time, only for the visitors to equalise after the break through Bertrand Traore.

However, United went back ahead when the impressive Pogba – who had four shots and created two chances, as well as having the most touches (69) for the hosts – was fouled inside the penalty area.

Fernandes duly converted from the spot – his ninth penalty in the Premier League since February 2020 – and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side held firm under intense late pressure, securing the three points that moves them level with Liverpool at the top of the table.

"I think today Paul was top, the first goal he makes a good skill. We all know the qualities he has, it's not in doubt," Fernandes told MUTV about his team-mate.

"We know he can play, he can help us, he can play really well and today he did it. He was involved in both goals, with the penalty he covered the ball and went away from the players.

"He will give more and more with the confidence coming in every game."

United sit behind the reigning champions on goal difference, though Liverpool can move clear again when they visit Southampton on Monday.

Still, victory over Villa extends United's unbeaten league run to 10 games, while they have now won three on the spin at home in the competition having struggled previously this season at Old Trafford.

For Fernandes, these are all promising signs for the future, though the Portugal international insists there are still areas to improve in the remainder of the campaign.

"We are building something important, most important for us is building a team and a group of players who take care of each other," Fernandes said.

"In the stands, in the last two or three minutes, everyone was shouting for us. Everyone wants the three points and that win.

"It was tough, we have to learn from here and from the Leicester game [which ended in a 2-2 draw]. We have to do better, we had situations to close the game, we have to do that."

Fernandes has now contributed 19 goals and 14 assists in his first 30 Premier League appearances for United, who host neighbours Manchester City next in the EFL Cup.

Bruno Fernandes' penalty sent Manchester United level on points with Liverpool at the top of the Premier League as they edged Aston Villa 2-1 at Old Trafford.

A Villa side looking to move third in the table always promised to pose a tricky test for United and so it proved in an open encounter.

The visitors appeared to be in the ascendancy after Bertrand Traore's 58th-minute effort cancelled out Anthony Martial's first-half opener.

However, United's lead was re-established through Fernandes' ninth Premier League penalty since the start of February 2020 - his tally in that time two more than any other player.

And it was enough for United to further boost their title hopes, with only goal difference keeping Liverpool top of the pile.

Goalkeepers Emiliano Martinez and David de Gea were each forced into important early saves from Martial and John McGinn respectively, but the better opportunities came United's way, with Fred and Paul Pogba spurning presentable chances.

Fernandes bent wide but United's first goal of the new year came from Martial, who rounded off a neat move with a stooping header from Aaron Wan-Bissaka's right-wing cross.

Only the tremendous reflexes of De Gea prevented Ollie Watkins from levelling the contest, the Spain international producing heroics to turn Watkins' header from Jack Grealish over the crossbar.

Anwar El Ghazi then lashed a volley narrowly wide of the near post before Villa got the goal their second-half efforts deserved, a quick free-kick ending with Grealish's low cross finding Traore at the far post to tuck home.

But parity lasted little under four minutes as Fernandes powered his penalty into the bottom-left corner after Douglas Luiz had clipped Pogba following a throw-in.

Martial stung the palms of Martinez who, after Pogba produced an errant finish from close range, tipped a marvellous Fernandes effort onto the crossbar.

Tyrone Mings let a gilt-edged chance go begging late on, ensuring United's inability to double their lead was not punished, though they will need to be more clinical if they are to narrow the eight-goal gap between themselves and Liverpool.

Marcus Rashford hopes his hunger for goals and assists will propel Manchester United to success this season.

The England international has been in fine form so far this term, with his stoppage-time winner against Wolves on Tuesday helping the Red Devils crank up the pressure on leaders Liverpool. 

United are now just three points behind the champions, who drew 0-0 with Newcastle United on Wednesday, and have played a game less. 

In 14 Premier League starts this season, Rashford has scored seven goals and laid on four for his team-mates from 20 chances created. 

That compares to 17 goals in 31 starts last season and a total of seven assists from 33 chances created. 

His total this campaign is second only to Bruno Fernandes in the United side, the Portuguese midfielder scoring 10 goals and providing seven assists. 

United can go level on points with Liverpool with victory over Aston Villa on Friday and Rashford has made it clear only one thing will be on his mind when Dean Smith's side visit Old Trafford.

"My main aim is to help the team and, as a forward, it's goals and assists that do that so the more of them I can get is the best for the team," he told United's official website. 

"That's what I'm concentrating on doing and ultimately that's what is going to help the team pick up points and if we have three or four of us that are playing in that way and trying to help each other score, then we can have big possibilities this season."

United have recovered from a poor start to the season, which saw them pick up just seven points from their opening six games. 

There were three home defeats in that run, including a humiliating 6-1 reverse to Tottenham. 

The 13-time Premier League champions are now in the midst of a nine-game unbeaten streak, however, which Rashford attributes to a new-found consistency amongst the players.

"This season with what's been going on and the way the season has started and players being out with COVID-19, when one player goes out with it, it affects the team and it's difficult to find consistency," he added. "I think that's what teams have been struggling with and that leads to results being up and down.

"I expect that to happen throughout the season so the only thing we can do is concentrate on ourselves and give ourselves the best chance of winning three points. To be fair, we've done that. 

"The beginning of the season wasn't the best for us, especially at home, but we've found a way to get back on track and probably when it was the most difficult period for us we came out of it in a good way and stuck together as a team.

"As long as we keep doing that and do as well as we can on the pitch we can't ask for anything more."

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