Like a graceful African bird of prey, Mohamed Salah hovers above Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, talons poised for a lethal strike.
oday’s crimson convulsion – United v Liverpool – brings into the same Old Trafford orbit two Premier League figures who have been trending in opposing directions.
Even by the standards of the highest profile fixture in English football, an unusual abundance of riveting storylines accompany the teams to Manchester.
1 – IS SALAH THE BEST PLAYER IN THE WORLD RIGHT NOW?
In a word, yes. The masterful Egyptian has attained a state of grace in recent weeks, soaring to the highest rung of the football ladder, that best player on the planet notch to which Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo had jointly held the title deeds.
Salah has scored 12 times in 11 games, netting at least once in each of his last nine appearances.
The 29-year-old has danced to a gasps-of-disbelief soundtrack, wonder goals in his two most recent domestic masterclasses against Manchester City and Watford heightening the sense of an assassin who stands alone.
If the even more prolific Robert Lewandowski continues to plunder at will, the mesmerising range of Salah’s play, artistic merit accompanying lethal intent, sets him apart.
He has impressively silenced critics who were agnostic about his capacity to create for others.
The gorgeous precision arc of his outside of the boot left-foot assist for Sadio Mane’s Vicarage Road opener last week spoke of his all-round game’s rapidly expanding horizons.
His deceptive strength, dribbling skills in claustrophobic spaces, along with a capacity to change direction at warp speed and leave defenders with twisted blood, complete a thrilling package.
For a dozen years the Messi/Ronaldo supremacy has set new standards, but the autumn of 2021 will be remembered as the beginning of the Egyptian epoch.
2 – IS ANY UNITED TITLE CHALLENGE DEPENDENT ON MAKING THE HARD CALL TO SACK SOLSKJAER?
Again, in a word, yes.
There has been enormous goodwill toward Solskjaer, a beloved Old Trafford figure and palpably decent man. Supporters have been reluctant to turn on the taps of rage which submerged Jose Mourinho and Louis Van Gaal.
If there were signs of the mood music changing with half-time boos as United yet again laboured against Atalanta on Wednesday, the sense was that the second-half comeback merely papered over deep fissures.
Prior to that United had lost four of their previous seven, and despite huge summer investment they continue to look unbalanced in attack and incoherent in defence.
Despite being able to call on a centre-back combination of the planet’s most expensive defender (Harry Maguire) and a World Cup and four time Champions League winner (Raphael Varane), they have kept just one clean sheet in 20 games dating back to April.
Solskjaer remains tactically one-dimensional, lacking the wit or sophistication of a Klopp, Guardiola or Tuchel.
Unlike his peers, there is scant evidence of players improving under his tutelage.
And there is zero evidence of the cut-throat, Machiavellian aura with which Alex Ferguson governed his lair (witness Ole’s mute response to Paul Pogba’s loose words last week).
A simplistic but revealing test is to imagine one of Europe’s super clubs – Bayern or Barca or PSG – are in the market for a new coaching dream ticket.
Klopp or Guardiola would top the ballot; it is difficult to imagine that Ole would make a 50-candidate long list.
Defeat today would leave Solskjaer besieged, an increasingly forlorn figure, seven points adrift of Liverpool with less than a quarter of the season gone and with fixtures against Manchester City and Chelsea looming.
The Norwegian, a failure at Cardiff on his only previous English shift, desperately needs a win today as he fights a rearguard action against an overwhelming tide of evidence he falls short of the required United benchmark.
The first turbulent weeks of October have strengthened convictions that the Solskjaer era – for all Ed Woodward’s unwavering support – is hanging by a thread.
Defeat today would surely bring the unravelling cord close to snapping.
3 – HAS RONALDO’S SECOND COMING JUSTIFIED THE HYPE?
The numbers for an athlete approaching his 37th birthday are deeply impressive. Six goals in eight games (11 in 11 when his Portuguese appearances are included) accompanied by a superstar capacity to deliver at United’s hour of greatest need.
Late, late winners against Villareal and Atalanta have rescued their Champions League campaign from calamity, illustrating an enduring ability to seize the headlines and shape a team’s destiny.
He has certainly been far more effective than the labouring Jadon Sancho.
It is hardly a criticism to state the obvious fact that the years have distilled CR7 down to an out and out finisher: He doesn’t press, is no
longer a dribbling menace and, when not scoring, is an anonymous passenger on the red train.
An argument can be made that the volume of attacking talent Solskjaer is seeking to squeeze onto the pitch leads to tactical imbalance, a group of individuals rather than a coherent strategic unit.
Fred and McTominay are artisan operators, but United average more points with two holding midfielders than with any five of the Ronaldo, Fernandes, Pogba, Greenwood, Rashford, Sancho, Lingard, Cavani and Martial attacking troupe.
Ronaldo has wowed the Stretford End, thrilled the club’s commercial division, sprinkled stardust on a poorly-directed movie, while those Champions League interventions have diverted a cold early season wind.
Still, though, the truth is that United probably needed a midfielder who can both hold and create – a figure like Youri Tielemans, Leicester’s Belgian master who undid Solskjaer last week – even more than the Second Coming.
4 – WHAT PREMIER LEAGUE CLUB HAS BEEN MOST IMPRESSIVE THIS SEASON?
Liverpool have rediscovered their 2018 to 2020 swagger, Brighton are enormously overachieving, and Brentford have made an encouraging, upbeat start to life in the fast lane.
5 – TODAY’S PREDICTION?
Two games at Old Trafford last year (one in the FA Cup) produced 11 goals, Liverpool are runaway leading EPL scorers (22 in 8), while even David De Gea’s rediscovered brilliance has not prevented United from toiling defensively.
We’ll take a stab at a 3-1 away win for Liverpool (priced at 13/1).