Under the radar

Manchester United kicked off their Premier League campaign on Sunday against Frank Lampard’s Chelsea in the final game of the opening weekend. Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka et al had to wait patiently as Liverpool breezed past newly-promoted Norwich City 4-1 on Friday night, while defending champions Man City barely got out of second gear away at West Ham the following day. Pundits and commentators alike on Sky Sports, BT Sport and BBC’s Match of The Day repeated their seemingly never-ending claims that the Title Race this season will be a two-horse race between last year’s top 2. United’s slump at the end of last season is still fresh in the minds of all who are paid to talk football on TV, with the 20-time Premier-League winners written off to finish 5th or 6th this time around by most. Jose Mourinho, making his Sky Sports debut on Sunday, said before United hammered Chelsea 4-0 that ‘Independent of what happens today [at United vs Chelsea], even if one of the teams plays magnificently and has a fantastic result, I don’t believe that they are going to resist in a title race’. Mourinho reiterated his claim after the game, but is he blinded by his own experience at Old Trafford? Admittedly, this wasn’t an imperious Chelsea team of the noughties, but United certainly put down a marker on Sunday that they definitely won’t settle for 6th place this season. They want more.

One of the most pleasing aspects from the game against Chelsea was the clean sheet that went with it. Harry Maguire has taken most of the plaudits for United’s defensive performance, but Aaron Wan-Bissaka had a debut to remember, with Emerson and Ross Barkley resorting to cutting inside after 10 minutes, knowing they weren’t getting past United’s new right-back. Victor Lindelof and Maguire looked very comfortable next to each other in United’s new-look centre-back partnership, with Luke Shaw Solskjaer’s only concern in United’s back line. Chelsea targeted that side, though Shaw didn’t get too much assistance defensively from Marcus Rashford in the first half. Title-charges are built upon a strong defensive foundation, and United certainly have that this season. Fans will be praying that neither Lindelof nor Maguire pick up any significant injuries this season, although fans reacted gleefully that Axel Tuanzebe made the substitutes bench ahead of the much-maligned Chris Smalling & Phil Jones for United’s opener. Diogo Dalot may find an opportunity at left-back sooner rather than later unless Shaw picks up his form in a speedy manner.

United’s clinical second-half performance was reminiscent of happier times at Old Trafford, with pace and power aplenty. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial linked up exceptionally with Paul Pogba, while Daniel James had the moment of the day with a fortuitous goal, but what followed was an incredibly emotional celebration, which gave United fans the chance to see how well-bonded the team looks this year. Every goal resulted in a team huddle, similar to those that follow goals across the city at the Etihad. The morale in the United dressing room appears better than it has in years and years. United look united, and the team look more like Manchester United.

It’s far too easy to read too much into the first game of the season, but all signs point to a positive season for Manchester United. An awkward trip to Molineux looms next Monday, but United will go into the game on an enormous high following Sunday’s performance. If United can take 3 points out of Monday’s game, don’t bet against them going on a winning-streak with Crystal Palace (H) and Southampton (A) before the International Break. United will be happy with the pressure being on Liverpool and Manchester City this season, but could they be potential Title Challengers? They’ll be happy to stay under the radar for now.

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