Football: Manchester United's Tuanzebe ready to excel

Solskjaer backs defender to stay fit and find consistency after impressing against PSG

Manchester United's Axel Tuanzebe shaking hands with Paris Saint-Germain defender Presnel Kimpembe during their Champions League match on Tuesday. Tuanzebe could keep his place when United face Chelsea today.
Manchester United's Axel Tuanzebe shaking hands with Paris Saint-Germain defender Presnel Kimpembe during their Champions League match on Tuesday. Tuanzebe could keep his place when United face Chelsea today.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • The answer to Manchester United's backline dilemma may have been right under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's nose the whole time.

The Red Devils' start to the new Premier League campaign has been roundly criticised following defeats by Crystal Palace (3-1) and Tottenham (6-1), with fans unhappy at the lack of a centre-back signing during the transfer window.

However, a 4-1 victory at Newcastle last weekend, followed by an impressive 2-1 win at Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in midweek, have silenced the critics for the moment.

United got their Champions League campaign off to a flyer after a standout performance by Axel Tuanzebe to shut down the likes of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Angel di Maria.

Not only was it the academy product's first game in 10 months, but it was also his first start this year yet the 22-year-old did not put a foot wrong at the Parc des Princes.

With Eric Bailly out and doubts over Harry Maguire, Tuanzebe is set to retain his place - something that pundits have called for - when Chelsea visit Old Trafford today.

The challenge for the former England Under-21 international is whether he can stay fit, according to Solskjaer.

Since being promoted to the first team five years ago, Tuanzebe has started only 12 times for United due to a string of injuries and the Norwegian wants him to become more durable.

At his pre-match virtual press conference yesterday, he said: "It was a great performance by a kid who's not played for 10 months.

"Delighted for him because he is such a professional character, he wants everything, he works really hard, been really, really thorough in his rehab, and I am very pleased for him.

"Now to get consistency in his performances, he's got to stay injury-free, we have to manage that. That's mine and his job, and the physio staff's job, of course. But I think he can kick on.

  • 100% Winning percentage in aerial duels of Manchester United defender Axel Tuanzebe against PSG in their Champions League match.

"He's such a leader. He can play right-back, centre-back, central midfield, he can play many positions and he's a boy who takes responsibility for his own development and I'm sure he's doing everything he can to have a long career at United.

"So hopefully, we can get that consistency."

Former United striker Dimitar Berbatov agreed, telling Betfair yesterday that Tuanzebe had played his way into Solskjaer's plans.

He added: "I said pre-season that (the club) needed a centre-back, but maybe all along Axel has been there, and he is a strong candidate to be first choice."

Solskjaer also revealed that fellow youth team graduate Mason Greenwood would have a late fitness test, but new signing Edinson Cavani was raring to go amid the possibility of his debut against Chelsea.

The former PSG striker, signed on a free transfer on deadline day, has yet to play due to a precautionary quarantine spell amid the Covid-19 pandemic and fitness issues, but has made an impression in training.

"He might be ready for the squad as well for this weekend," Solskjaer said.

"He's been training hard and been training well. I think he'll be available for the weekend."

The Blues have no fitness worries other than the absence of Billy Gilmour, with Edouard Mendy set to keep the No. 1 spot ahead of fellow goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2020, with the headline 'Tuanzebe ready to excel'. Print Edition | Subscribe