Manchester United fans and players may have been forgiven for not possessing much of an appetite with Christmas approaching – but both now head into the remainder of 2018 with a ravenous attitude.
In the midst of a particularly melancholy campaign – United’s points tally thus far is their worst in the Premier League era – some festive cheer was belatedly spread among Red Devils supporters with a wonderful performance against Cardiff City on Saturday evening, gift-wrapped in a once familiar coating of poise and panache.
It must be remembered of course that victory came against promoted Cardiff – who caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had taken back into the Championship the last time they were at this level.
They are fighting a familiar battle upon their return to the elite – Neil Warnock’s side lie a place and two points above the bottom three, and have conceded the second most goals this term.
But, do United fans not deserve a happy Christmas? Even Ebenezer Scrooge himself would find it difficult to begrudge them a little festive delight following a season which started with Jose Mourinho already in a bedraggled state following a lack of support and financial investment from the club hierarchy in the summer, leading to him tempering expectation – in July.
After lifting United to a league-high runners-up spot in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure last season, that was not what United fans wanted to hear from their emboldened leader.
What followed was a five-month rollercoaster of embarrassment, humbug tactics and each lifeless performance stripping away what little polished and protected veneer the once Special One had left. His sacking last week was as ugly as it was abundantly necessary.
The resounding nature of victory against Cardiff provided United’s dying season with a much-needed shot in the arm and painted a picture of brighter things to come in 2019, with the dark cloud which has taken up residence above Old Trafford during the first half of the season already beginning to lift.
Fans must keep their excitement and expectations in check, but after scoring five goals in the league for the first time since Ferguson’s final game in charge, how can supporters bedecked in red not feel at least a little jolly?
One game, one performance, is not going to paper over the cracks of what remains a United squad in need of much more than short term festive joy.
Fans will hold out hope that a visit from Santa Claus leaves a player or two under the Christmas tree come the transfer window, with their defence still shaky and devoid of class, save for the fine form of a resurgent Luke Shaw.
The likes of Manchester City and Liverpool also remain some way in front – in terms of both points accrued this season and structure, both on and off the field.
But during a campaign when United’s players have been criticised from all corners about a perceived lack of hunger and turning on the previous manager, against Cardiff there certainly appeared plenty of fire in the belly.
Suddenly, a packed festive fixture list presents United with plenty of points to pluck. A platter of Huddersfield, Bournemouth and Newcastle should provide the Red Devils with a very appetising smorgasbord to feast on – not to mention a kind-looking third round FA Cup tie against struggling Championship outfit Reading before a trip to Tottenham on January 13.
Saturday’s scoreline marked 2,043 days and more than 200 games since United last netted five in a league game – Ferguson’s reign relinquished in typically breathtaking fashion as West Brom snatched a 5-5 draw on the final day of the 2012/13 season.
Since then, not just under Mourinho but predecessors Louis van Gaal and David Moyes, games had been hallmarked by pedestrian passing, United meandering their way to ugly victories against limited opposition or being thoroughly outclassed by the league and Europe’s elite – of which they strangely are now not part of.
But this win and performance provides hope. It was only Cardiff, they’ll say. No-one has heard of half of their players, will come the comments, laced with scorn and sarcasm. Warnock is arguably their most famous face.
Yet in just 90 minutes, Solskjaer was able to coax out of this undoubtedly talented team a performance worthy of the badge.
So, as United fans tuck hungrily into their turkey this December 25, they will eagerly look forward to the next course and what Solskjaer and Co can plate up for them over the next six months.
All of a sudden for United fans, it really is beginning to feel like the most wonderful time of the year.
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