It’s been a long, expensive and often turbulent journey, but Manchester United is back in a place it used to know so well.
Top of the Premier League.
A 1-0 win at Burnley on Tuesday, secured by a deflected volley from Paul Pogba, lifted United above great rival Liverpool to the summit of England’s top division after 17 games, approaching the halfway point of the season.
“We are exactly where we belong,” United midfielder Nemanja Matic said.
The great Alex Ferguson was still in charge the last time United led the standings this deep into a league campaign. That was in the 2012-13 season and Ferguson would go on to lead United to the title in what proved to be his final season as a manager.
Can Ole Gunnar Solskjaer do the same?
The Norwegian said this week that “no one remembers the January league tables” but it didn’t stop him having a look of satisfaction at the final whistle. Quite justifiably, too, given the criticism he has faced in his two years in charge, mostly from those who believe he isn’t qualified to be a manager at this level.
Yet he has done something David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, his three predecessors following Ferguson’s retirement, were unable to do — at least this far into a season. United was briefly top in September 2017, while a season-opening win over Leicester in August 2018 put the team in first place for one day in what proved to be a false position.
United moved into a three-point lead over Liverpool that could immediately be wiped out, with Solskjaer’s side heading to Anfield on Sunday.
“We’re ready, we’re excited, we’re hungry for it,” Solskjaer said, “and it’s a test of character and quality again. We’re in a good position going into it.”
It was a slog against Burnley, as it often is at Turf Moor, with the hosts defending diligently before being undone by a cruel piece of fortune in the 71st minute.
Pogba met a cross from Marcus Rashford with a first-time volley from the edge of the area that struck the outstretched leg of Burnley right back Matt Lowton and ricocheted through the legs of goalkeeper Nick Pope.
The final whistle was met with roars from United players — especially from Pogba — as it was inside an empty Bramall Lane a few hours earlier after Sheffield United ended the longest winless start to a Premier League season.
After 18 league games, Sheffield United finally has a victory.
A 1-0 victory over 10-man Newcastle was secured by Billy Sharp’s 73rd-minute penalty and came as a huge relief for Chris Wilder’s side, which is still in last place — on just five points and nine points from safety — but at least has a glimmer of hope of staying up now.
Last season, the team that was challenging for the European positions until late in the campaign.
“I thought we were in control and confident on the ball and it was a deserved win. It looked like we got our identity back,” Wilder said.
Newcastle’s chances of getting back into the game after conceding the penalty were remote considering the team was down to 10 men at that point following the 45th-minute sending-off of winger Ryan Fraser for two yellow cards.
The last time Everton visited Wolverhampton, it lost 3-0 in July to drop to 11th place in the league and prompt a furious response from manager Carlo Ancelotti, who questioned his players’ spirit in what he described as an “unacceptable” display.
Six months later, they returned to Molineux and won 2-1 to climb into fourth place — the final Champions League qualification spot — and make it five victories from six games.
Michael Keane’s 77th-minute header clinched victory, after Wolves midfielder Ruben Neves’ volley in the 14th canceled out Alex Iwobi’s first league goal for 17 months.
Everton won despite being without 14-goal top scorer Dominic Calvert-Lewin and fellow forward Richarlison because of injury.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80