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title battle Ole Gunnar Solskjaer prepares Manchester United for their altitude test

Rarefied air of life at the top proving tough for reds post-Ferguson

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Consistency has been an issue for Manchester
United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Consistency has been an issue for Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Getty Images

Consistency has been an issue for Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players may find themselves needing different sorts of masks over the next seven days.

Oxygen masks, that is.

For victory over Burnley on Tuesday night will lift his side into the kind of rarefied atmosphere they haven't breathed in under his management: top spot.

A win would knock Liverpool off their perch - a phrase not used around Old Trafford for quite some time now.

What is more, Manchester United would find themselves six clear of the reigning Premier League champions if they were then to go on to beat them at Anfield next Sunday.

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Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford will be key for United in the coming weeks. Photo: Getty Images

Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford will be key for United in the coming weeks. Photo: Getty Images

Manchester United via Getty Imag

Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford will be key for United in the coming weeks. Photo: Getty Images

Given that last week Solskjaer's side lost their fourth semi-final in a row under him in the League Cup defeat to Manchester City, there are questions about whether he and his team have a head for heights.

And in a season when - again - Solskjaer's position as manager has appeared to be under intense pressure, the prospect of finding himself leader of the pack might go to his head.

Certainly smelling salts may be required on the way to Merseyside if Sean Dyche's side are first seen off.

It was just over a year ago that Solskjaer reached what may go on to be seen as his nadir.

Burnley won 2-0, the first time they had beaten United at home since 1962 and the fans - remember them? - kicked off.

The Norwegian's side was ridiculed as the worst seen at Old Trafford in 30 years.

Solskjaer didn't sound like he would last another 30 days as he declared: "We can't feel sorry for ourselves.

"When you are at Man Utd you are privileged because you are playing for the best club in the world.

"Sometimes you go through periods like this and it is a test I am sure they are going to come through."

He was right. They did come through. To respectability at least.

But for those fans calling for his blood, and that of most of the players, the thought of being ahead of Liverpool - then running away with their first title in that same 30-year span - would have seemed ridiculous and completely unachievable.

For it had been a long time since their team had spent any real time on or around the top of the table.

Ferguson had famously declared when he arrived that he was going to "knock Liverpool off their ****ing perch" and he kept his promise in grand style with 13 titles.

Yet following the last of those before he retired in 2013, oxygen has hardly ever been required.

After the misery of David Moyes short, doomed spell as successor United did go top in late September, 2015 with a 3-0 win over Sunderland but a defeat to Arsenal by the same score in the next game dumped them to third and things never got better.

The following year they led after the first two games but by September they were sixth and never got upwardly mobile again.

After the first four games of the 2017-18 season they were top but then dropped down to second and stayed there.

The next campaign saw them as low as 13th and never higher than sixth.

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Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.

PA

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.

Last season they were 12th by the October before the late rally that took them into third and the Champions League again.

It got very dodgy for Solskjaer early in this battle for title credibility and twice they were as low as 16th after losing 1-0 to Arsenal at home.

But since then they are unbeaten in ten, their pre-Christmas 6-2 win over Leeds United elevated them to third.

And back-to-back victories over Wolves and Aston Villa puts them in with that chance of taking pole position.

And never, since Fergie headed up to the stands, have United been ahead of the rest at this stage of the season.

The scenario may not seem credible to quite a few, given that almost everybody - probably including Solskjaer himself - can predict what sort of a side is going to turn up on any given day.

The one that never got out of its shell - or wasn't allowed to - by City last week?

Or the one that could have scored 12 against Leeds, created a club record of ten away league wins and should have made it 11 in a 2-2 draw at Leicester?

Certainly Jurgen Klopp is taking the threat very seriously.

He has told his stuttering champs to get their act back together by the time they face Manchester United.

In terms of the big picture, Friday night's Covid-hit FA Cup tie with Aston Villa had as little importance to him as United's meeting with Watford.

For Klopp keeping that title that took so long for the club to win back is everything - as it is to the Anfield support.

Klopp had already decided before the meeting with Villa that he would start restoring order after an almost shocking run of two points from three league games and only one goal scored.

He had planned to play one of his strongest sides available to sort out their poor form - very much with the United game in mind - as opposed to playing kids or those more senior coming back from injury.

He said: "There will be nine days after Villa until we play Manchester United.

"Our standards have dropped in the last few games.

"But in those nine days we will have a lot of time when we can do work to help the players a lot.

"We know we need to improve but after those nine days we will be in a different place."

What kind of place Solskjaer and his men will be in, in seven days, may well define his reign.

It will also be a critical test of how much the United players actually WANT to sniff the air - or lack of it - at the very top.

Or whether, as they tend to do in semi-finals, they swoon over the strain of finally getting back onto that perch that Ferguson took and then occupied for so long.

  • Burnley v Man Utd, Premier League, Tues., 8.15pm, live Sky Spts

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