Piling pressure at the top

United displace rivals Liverpool as league leaders ahead of their meeting on Sunday

United midfielder Paul Pogba being mobbed by teammates after scoring the winner in Tuesday's league match at Burnley.
United midfielder Paul Pogba being mobbed by teammates after scoring the winner in Tuesday's league match at Burnley.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • At the start of the season, Liverpool were the odds-on favourites to match Manchester United's record of 20 top-flight titles this season. But injuries and mixed form has meant the defence of their Premier League title has not gone as planned and their rivals have taken advantage.

After going to the top of the table for the first time since Sept 9, 2017 following their 1-0 away win over Burnley on Tuesday, United are now in a position to show they are back on the perch of English football with a statement victory at Liverpool.

Their backline prevented Burnley from recording a single shot on target at Turf Moor and Paul Pogba's deflected volley ensured the Red Devils are now three points of clear of Jurgen Klopp's team, who are winless in their last three league games.

Sunday's visit to Liverpool - unbeaten at home in the league since April 2017 - could not have come at a better time, says United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

"It's a brilliant position to be in," said the Norwegian, whose future had been under threat just a few months ago after a slow start to the season and their group-stage exit from the Champions League.

"We know we are going to the champions, they've had an unbelievable 31/2 seasons, we know that's going to be a difficult game, but we're ready for it.

"We couldn't be going there at a better time to play them because we are in good shape, good form, hungry, these boys want to get better and that's a test again."

In recent weeks, Pogba (right) has become an increasingly important influence in United's first serious title challenge since last winning the league in 2012-13, Alex Ferguson's final season in charge.

Pogba's agent Mino Raiola has spoken openly about wanting to move his client on at the end of the season, but Solskjaer insisted the French World Cup winner remains a major part of his plans.

"I've always said Paul is a big, big player for us," he said. "He is a good character in the dressing room, he is always one the lads look to (because) he's a world champion.

"We are seeing the best of Paul at the moment. He's getting better and better every game."

Pogba is also sensing that "a big moment" is coming up on Sunday.

"It will be a beautiful game for everyone," he told the BBC. "It's a big game coming up so let's get ready for it. We will see what is going to happen. There is still a long way to go so we are going to have to focus until the end."

His side are now unbeaten in 15 Premier League away fixtures, winning 12

of them. Ironically, their last defeat on the road came at Anfield a year ago but pundits also believe that momentum may be with the visitors this time.

Former United captain Gary Neville told Sky Sports he knows "how quickly this league can turn around", given how tight the table is at the top but that United fans can take pride in knowing their team is performing above expectations.

"I don't think anybody is saying Manchester United are going to win the league but they are in a title race, wow.

"It's a strange season... it is all turning around again. But it shouldn't stop Manchester United fans from getting carried away in the next few days...

"It's been a really difficult few years and there have been times when Manchester United have looked a million miles away from the top of the league. So to be top of the league, three points clear of a really good Liverpool side in January, isn't expected."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2021, with the headline 'Piling pressure at the top'. Print Edition | Subscribe