LIVERPOOL, England — Something is beginning to stir at Manchester United, maybe even the reawakening of a club that has appeared to be sleepwalking through the past seven years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement as manager. A 2-0 Carabao Cup quarterfinal win at Everton is by no means the golden moment of realisation, but another piece of evidence that United are finally on their way back.
Edinson Cavani’s 88th-minute goal, after United had dominated Carlo Ancelotti’s team at Goodison Park, was the breakthrough strike that ensured victory before Anthony Martial added a second in the final moment of stoppage time. Having had 15 efforts on target, compared to Everton’s six, and enjoyed 65% of possession over the 90 minutes, United’s superiority was clear and their win booked a one-legged January semifinal against holders Manchester City at Old Trafford, which will be another test of the progress made by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team following three semifinal exits in domestic and European cup competitions last season.
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Solskjaer’s team needs to win silverware, no matter the circumstances, because United are a club that demands success in every competition. Having failed to win any trophy since the Europa League under Jose Mourinho in 2017, the pressure is growing at Old Trafford to end that run.
“We are expected to win trophies,” United captain Harry Maguire said after this victory. “It’s important to reach these big games but we have to start winning them and lift some trophies for this club.”
That is the price on the ticket with United, but success for Solskjaer is a separate issue. After some heavy-duty blows and setbacks, including this season’s 6-1 home defeat against Tottenham, it cannot be denied that the Norwegian now appears to have steered United out of turbulence and into clear blue skies.
Quite simply, United look like a team again, and against Everton there were periods of the game when they made mugs of their opponents with some slick passing and movement. Cavani and Bruno Fernandes, two high-profile signings in 2020, have raised the bar on the pitch with their quality, and it is rubbing off on others.
And by winning at Goodison — for the second time this season — United extended their unbeaten run in domestic away games to 20, stretching back to a loss at Liverpool in January. If they avoid defeat at Leicester City on Saturday, United will travel to Anfield next month with that sequence lasting an entire year, which would be a remarkable achievement for any team. If they go to Liverpool and win, that would take the expectation and excitement at United to another level and trigger genuine hopes of a first Premier League title since Ferguson vacated the stage in 2013.
But this is the danger with Solskjaer’s United. They have shown glimpses of promise and hinted at having turned a corner before, only to stumble and fall in spectacular fashion. It has been boom and bust ever since Solskjaer arrived in December 2018, but this performance at Everton, three days after the 6-2 demolition of Leeds United, was another pointer towards positive times ahead.
Maybe this time it is for real, though. There is a hunger to this United team, exemplified best by Cavani, with the 33-year-old chasing down opponents all night before scoring his stunning left-foot effort in the closing stages. He also has the winning mentality, honed during a hugely successful spell with Paris Saint-Germain, which will surely inspire those around him in the United squad who have yet to taste the feeling of lifting a major trophy.
United have to take that next step, though, to show they are winners rather than nearly men.
“We’ve had three semifinals the last year, of course, and it’s a step not far enough,” Solskjaer said. “This year again, as last year, we play City in the semifinals, so let’s see how we fare.”
City, Chelsea and Sevilla FC all defeated United in semifinals last season, and the clash against Pep Guardiola’s side will give Solskjaer and his team the chance to avenge last January’s Carabao Cup exit. Since the start of last season, United have beaten City three times in all competitions, but beating them in a one-off cup tie, with a place in the final up for grabs, is a test that Solskjaer and his players must pass.
All of the most successful teams of the past have had to clear that hurdle and win their first trophy. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, today’s dominant force, lost three major finals before finally enjoying that winning feeling, and their 2019 Champions League success saw them kick on to win the Premier League earlier this year.
United don’t look ready to go toe-to-toe with Liverpool right now, but if, or when, they get their first trophy, it will inject them with belief and confidence that they can win more. That is where they are at right now. Progress has been made and United are competitive again, but the next step is winning silverware and showing they have learned from last season’s near misses.