Sir Alex Ferguson was back at Old Trafford and summoned the return of his Manchester United vintage. They did not make it easy for themselves.
In the first truly exciting United run-in since the agonising title tussle with City in 2012 anxiety set in against a spirited Southampton who could have been mistaken for the team bidding to ascend to third place. Five times this year Chelsea had squandered points before United played only for United to do likewise and they had to buck the trend. But they didn’t.
Failure to do so could result in more Europa League football at Old Trafford next season. United were seconds away from ending the night in third but are still marooned in fifth. They have not won after seeing chokers Chelsea, still occupying third, draw or lose since Boxing Day.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport’s ruling in Manchester City’s favour means fifth no longer secures a passage back to the Champions League. It is still in their hands; win their last three against Crystal Palace, West Ham, and Leicester and fourth is secured. That does not look so certain now.
With so much to gain, United were paralysed by nerves and Ferguson will not have been the only supporter suffering during their first unconvincing performance since the first month of the year. This United managed to find a way in the stroll against Bournemouth but they could not pull away from a superb Southampton who, for the second season running, are candidates for most impressive visitors at Old Trafford.
Their Austrian coach, Ralph Hassenhuttl, was dressed like a Jurgen Klopp tribute act and his team mimicked the intensity of Klopp teams against a leggy United reduced to 10 men in added time following a sickening blow to Brandon Williams. Williams’s absence cannot legislate for David de Gea not rising for a corner or Victor Lindelof letting Michael Obafemi get goal-side for the Fergie time equaliser.
This was more in keeping of the United pre-winter break; the flaky, in-flux and incomplete squad Solskjaer had assembled for the first five months of the season. Anthony Martial was almost single-handedly responsible for their recovery and may not be described as mercurial much longer after one of his most resilient performances in red. He brought the substituted Paul Pogba to his feet following a virtuoso second-half run he almost capped clinically and how United needed a third.
Martial atoned magnificently for a profligate one-on-one that Southampton punished through Stuart Armstrong; first by assisting Marcus Rashford whilst on his backside and then joining his foil on 21 goals with a calling card finish. Martial displayed similar tenacity at Villa Park for the second goal last week and has supplemented the silk with steel this season. If he continues in this vein he will eventually break that world-class ceiling United identified in him at Monaco five years ago.
United fielded an unchanged XI for the fifth Premier League game in succession for the first time since February 1993 and it was a game too far. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Nemanja Matic are in need of breathers and Luke Shaw, the sole starter in every match of the unbeaten 18-match streak, succumbed to injury.
Southampton players and staff were more vocal and Matic was portentous with his ‘Well done Bruno, well done Paul’ platitudes. Both marquee midfielders toiled and, not for the first time at Old Trafford, Pogba dithered on the ball, lost it and it ended up past De Gea. Southampton dispossessed him again in a precarious position and Fernandes twice failed to overcome the first man.
“Bruno! Hey! Come on!” Solskjaer screamed after a casually overhit pass almost took Rashford into the pitchside ditch. Pogba, singled out by Solskjaer during the first drinks interval, was the first to be substituted just past the hour.
“Harry! Talk!” Solskjaer also yelled and Maguire obliged. “F—–g wake up! Every f—–g time!” Maguire was bellowing at the referee when it should have been some of his teammates. Solskjaer hurtled down the dugout steps for the drinks break and by the time he reached ground level the game had turned on its head through Martial’s ruthlessness.
Poignantly, a ray of sunshine shone on the stadium at the start of the moment’s silence for Jack Charlton, remembered by the present Ferguson but not his brother, scarcely seen at Old Trafford in the last two years. Maguire paid his own paean with a rumbustious early challenge Charlton would have deemed tame and that was the sole burst of aggression from United until Rashford struck in the 20th minute.
Rashford and Martial spurned openings to tally a fifth successive three-goal haul in the league and De Gea briefly reminded his detractors of his balletic agility to foil Nathan Redmond before Williams let out a blood-curdling cry in bleeding for the cause after an aerial challenge.
Solskjaer had made four of the permitted five substitutions but in the maximum three batches, so Eric Bailly was unable to replace the dazed Williams and United yielded.
They did not make it easy for themselves.