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Ole Gunnar's choice

Tuesday 15th January 2019
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As a Manchester United fan, I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the hard-won victory over Tottenham. If we're being honest, however, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's record-setting six straight wins to begin his Old Trafford tenure only opened the first door for the Red Devils. Stepping through, they find a long stairway leading up to fourth place. A long, seven-point stairway.

The Norwegian took charge of United on 19 December. In 25 days, he won his first-half dozen matches, a feat no predecessor can match. After the first one, pessimists were tweeting "it was only Cardiff." After the second and third, it was "wait until he faces Spurs." Well, he's done that and in less than a month drawn level on points with Arsenal.

United fans shouldn't be full of themselves, though. It means little in the grander scheme. The club remains in sixth, at least three results from the Champions League places. Only sixteen games remain to make up that difference. Any points dropped will make the feat even more improbable.

Solskjaer has a choice to make. He can focus on the tough climb to catch Chelsea or try to win one of the two trophies still within the club's grasp. A trip to the Emirates on 25 January is the first step in the FA Cup journey. The tie against Paris Saint-Germain doesn't begin until two days before Valentines.

The FA Cup and Champions League are shorter routes to success although one is more realistic than the other. Ever ambitious and pragmatic, Jose Mourinho travelled the cup path in his first campaign. We see now that it led the club away from the true progress it needed to make. Solskjaer will be doubly tempted to win silverware if he is truly interested in staying on permanently. An FA Cup trophy may sway the board. A Champions League certainly would. But the foundation for continued success lies in the Premier League. Ole Gunnar risks his dream by prioritising league play but it is the best choice for United's future.

Solskjaer faces that choice now. The FA Cup 4th Round clash at the Emirates is less than a fortnight away. Does he rotate his squad this coming Saturday to prepare for that match the following Friday or does he field a full-strength XI against Brighton to begin running down Chelsea?

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The Blues hold a seven-point edge but Ole Gunnar has a window to exploit before his next difficult Premier League test when Liverpool come to Old Trafford on 24 February. Following Chris Hughton and the Seagulls' visit, Sean Dyche and relegation-troubled Burnley come calling. Then it's off to Leicester and Fulham.

Meanwhile, Maurizio Sarri must negotiate banana peels in each of his four corresponding matches. Arsenal and Manchester City offer considerable and obvious threats but it shouldn't be forgotten Bournemouth earned a famous win last January at Stamford Bridge and Huddersfield nicked a draw there to greatly aid their survival in May even if those results came against a fading Antonio Conte.

It isn't a stretch to imagine United facing Liverpool in a similar position as they were going into Wembley against Tottenham. The opportunity may exist to close the gap to one or two points if, in the most over-the-moon scenario, the Blues haven't already been caught, giving Solskjaer's charges added impetus against the Reds.

To be in that position, however, OGS must treat every league match as the most important the club will play this season. Which path will he take?

Football Fixtures
Manchester United News
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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