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united front Should Pogba maintain anything close to last week’s impressive trajectory, then United are authentic title challengers

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Bruno Fernandes points to Paul Pogba after another goal

Bruno Fernandes points to Paul Pogba after another goal

Bruno Fernandes points to Paul Pogba after another goal

A FRESH and thrilling current surged through a repopulated Old Trafford on Opening Day, the rush of electricity generated by a trio who announced that anything might be possible.

Bruno Fernandes offered the latest evidence of his irresistible potency, a hat-trick that took him further ahead of Harry Kane and Mo Salah as the Premier League player with the most goals and assists (48) since January 2020.

Paul Pogba unveiled the sharp edge of his genius, four assists and an unrivalled passing range delivering unforgettable evidence of how, on his better days, football’s most divisive figure is uniquely equipped to make the Theatre of Dreams purr.

And the flames of red hope fanned like a Mediterranean wildfire as Mason Greenwood offered further soaring expression of his still teenage predatory gifts.

Manchester United were a song perfectly sung.

All done without Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, Edison Cavani, Anthony Martial or Rafael Varane in their starting line-up, they erupted into the new season like a team eager to escape the torpor of the lost post-Ferguson years.

It is a microscopic sample size, but in rendering Leeds as helpless as calves at the abattoir gate, United brought the glow of brilliant potential to an August weekend.

They had the air of a team equipped to endure the endless road to next May.

A similar exhibition of high velocity ambition and pitiless execution at Southampton today might persuade even the agnostics to upgrade predictions for the season ahead.

Therein, of course, lies the problem.

There have been no shortage of once-off pyrotechnics – from PSG in 2019 to the nine-goal rout of the Saints last season – over the 32 perplexing months of the Solskjaer cycle.

The issue, distilled to its essence in the enigmatic unreliability of Pogba, has been inconsistency.

So, that reaching out for the Champions League heavens in Paris was followed within days by fumbling and clueless and momentum-crushing losses at Arsenal and Wolves.

Likewise, before the paint was even dry on their masterpiece of execution that did for Southampton, United were frustrated by both Everton and West Brom.

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Here is a team that has no difficulty racing across the entire bandwidth of performance, from devastating to dismal, in the space of a single bewildering week.

It is why the Stretford End will require many more depositions before they are convinced Pogba can be more than a sunny day difference maker.

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Mason Greenwood congratulates Fernandes after his second goal at Old Trafford

Mason Greenwood congratulates Fernandes after his second goal at Old Trafford

Mason Greenwood congratulates Fernandes after his second goal at Old Trafford

Last weekend’s cameo was mesmerising, an exhibition of Gallic joie de vivre, but the Frenchman needs a sustained surge to earn anything close to absolute terrace trust.

At 28, in perhaps his farewell Old Trafford season, the requirement from the World Cup winner is nothing less than a consistently eye-catching body of work.

Should Pogba maintain anything close to last week’s impressive trajectory, then United are authentic title challengers.

We have been here before.

The crushing of Leeds came almost two years to the day since an equally memorable 2019/20 premiere: A four-goal undressing of Chelsea that offered vivid evidence of how Solskjaer’s team might strike down any opponent.

It was merely the latest false dawn. One point was their entire haul from the following three games against Wolves, Crystal Palace and Southampton and they would limp to the finishing line 33 points adrift of Liverpool.

Over the past two seasons, United failed to win 37 of their 76 league games. The corresponding figures for City and Liverpool were 23 and 24. It represents a vast chasm to cross.

There is, too, the question of how Solskjaer might let loose his entire bulging offensive arsenal.

Pogba sparkled last week as the left-sided attacker in a 4-2-3-1 formation that freed him of defensive responsibility while showcasing his superior capacity to thread the eye of the needle with a sequence of killer passes.

Yet if his manager is to accommodate any two of Sancho, Rashford, Cavani or Martial in his starting XI, then Pogba will likely be frequently redeployed as one of two holding midfielders.

The doubts about whether he has the discipline to be effective in such a role – and whether it negates his repertoire of offensive skills – are as ancient as the Manchester Ship Canal.

What seems beyond dispute is that United will not scratch a title itch stretching back to 2013 with the strictly artisan Fred and Scott McTominay as a double pivot.

As a pair “McFred” are simply too limited, too prosaic, too one-dimensional.

For all of United’s impressive summer upgrade, they still lack individuals to dictate tempo while shielding their defence as effectively, for example, as magnificent Leicester pair of Youri Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi.

What they have, when Bruno and Pogba combine like last week, is a devastating, world class offensive axis.

With Sancho set to ease the utilitarian Daniel James to the margins and Varane bringing Champions League and World Cup-winning pedigree, United are entitled to hope.

Bruno’s influence – 43 goals in 81 games – is Cantona-esque and a point of certainty for Solskjaer.

The suspicion here is that United’s destiny will ultimately be wedded to the form of Pogba.

It is both a tantalising and disquieting reality.

Nobody expects him to come anywhere close to last Saturday’s all-time single game Premier League record equalling four assists (in one magical 90 minutes he eclipsed his three for the entirety of last season) on a weekly basis.

No, what Manchester United require, is a consistently animated presence, the Pogba, who, on his more eloquent days, climbs to a rung of the ladder where only legitimately exceptional talents can gain a foothold.

Before their crimson standard can fly in the title battle, United’s most mercurial figure is obliged to mine for the level of sustained influence which, almost 30 years ago, his countryman, Cantona, had on tap.

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