Bruno Fernandes exemplifies Manchester United’s Premier League title hopes in a season of opportunities

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Melissa Reddy
·6 min read
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 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

As Alisson’s perfectly weighted and directed long kick bounced once and settled in Mohamed Salah’s stride with 90 on the clock against Manchester United, Anfield was silent.

Split seconds later, Daniel James had been shrugged off, the ball was slipped past David de Gea, the Egyptian’s shirt was off and the thundering chorus began.

“And now you’re gonna believe us. We’re gonna win the league.”

READ MORE: Premier League fixtures and table - all matches by date and kick-off time

It took 64 points, Liverpool going 16 clear at the top of the table with a game in hand and that goal at the death to seal a 2-0 victory against the old enemy for the club’s supporters to finally declare a 30-year wait for the title would be ended.

That was two days shy of a year ago, yet it feels like an altogether different time. Bruno Fernandes was not yet a Manchester United player and the game hadn’t been shaped by Covid to such a degree that embraces during goal celebrations in empty stadiums are outlawed.

Those factors: the purchase of a bonafide gamechanger and the pandemic largely tells the story of the top of the Premier League table.

Manchester United, powered by Fernandes, are three points clear of Liverpool, who are without starters Virgil van Dijk, Diogo Jota, Joe Gomez and possibly Joel Matip.

At this stage last season, they were 24 points behind.

The stacked schedule, lack of training time, positive tests, isolation periods and sharpest spike in injuries born out of Covid has reset what it will take to win the league. The benchmarks set by Manchester City and Liverpool in the previous three campaigns and Chelsea to a slightly lesser extent in 2016-17 has been lowered.

United’s haul of 36 points at the summit after 17 matchweeks is not a shade on this point of the season over the last two years, where Liverpool registered 45 and then 49 in their title-winning term.

The pandemic has ironed out much of the soul of football, but it has also granted more open opportunities at the top end.

United have seized theirs, with sizeable thanks to their talisman. One backroom staffer at a traditional top-six club revealed they analyse Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure in two chunks: BB and AB: Before Bruno and After Bruno.

The Portuguese international’s decisive contributions are remarkable - 19 goals and 14 assists in 31 league appearances - but his influence stretches beyond that. He has assumed responsibility, become the reference point for United and has visibility elevated the performance level of his teammates.

“He’s an outstanding player,” Jurgen Klopp analysed.

“Before he joined United, we played against Sporting on tour in the USA and in that game you could see already ‘wow’. You could really see he is a difference maker and that is what he shows now.

“He has settled well and he is a really influential player for United. I know most people talk about the goal involvements and that is very important but he is also the link up in a lot of other situations as well.

“I don’t know him well enough to really judge this but he seems to be a leader as well so a good signing, unfortunately, for United.”

Manchester United midfielder Bruno FernandesEPA
Manchester United midfielder Bruno FernandesEPA

The man himself is more humble about his transformative impact. “I don’t think it was me changing the mindset of the club,” Fernandes said.

“If I changed the mindset of some players or my mindset helped some players to be better - maybe. But I don’t think it was me changing anything for the club because playing for Manchester United means playing with the pressure, playing with the responsibility.

“You have to know you play for one of the biggest clubs in the world. I think you can always learn every day, it doesn’t matter how good you are. You can always learn something.”

Beyond his key weapon, Solskjaer has a strong hand on the selection front, with Marcus Rashford underscoring their variety in offence.

Klopp has more posers, with Liverpool’s absence of fully fit senior centre-backs impeding their build-up play and their effectiveness in transitioning rapidly.

The German, however, believes a clear-the-air discussion after the defeat at St Mary's has reminded the champions of what their strengths are and retrained the team’s mind.

“We lost against Southampton a week or so ago which was absolutely not what we wanted, but the next day we had a meeting and the boys had their say as well,” Klopp said.

“So we are in a place where we want to be. We know what we have to do. We know what went wrong. We know what we want to change. And now we have to put in on the pitch. That’s the situation. I’m really looking forward to this game.

“Things haven’t gone outstandingly well since mid-November but we still have 33 points.

“Yes, we are not exactly where we want to be but we have learned a lot this season. We are dealing with circumstances, dealing with situations and all of these kind of things and there was not one second because of the attitude of the boys it didn’t work out.

“So that’s good but it causes a problem as well because they have always won but it doesn’t work out all the time.

“We didn’t score a lot of goals in the draws and we didn’t score against Southampton but still we have scored the most goals in the league, so that’s absolutely crazy.

“So it’s not that it disappeared. It’s just exactly how it should be – why would one team click all the time and the other teams not? We have to go back to the basics and get strong. As strong we can be again.”

United have been clicking. They arrive at Anfield enjoying a 15-game unbeaten run in the league and having last suffered defeat on the road at the same stadium when Alisson released Salah to add to Van Dijk’s opener.

The swagger of first-placed United against a stuttering Liverpool, defending champions in second who couldn’t have asked for a better fixture in which to show a response, gives the match Sir Alex Ferguson has "always felt is the biggest of the season” the kind of dimension it has lacked in recent years.

A win for either side would deliver a psychological blow to the other: United could learn they are still off the pace to be true contenders in defeat, but would genuinely believe they can reclaim a crown that has become so unfamiliar in triumph.

A Liverpool loss would magnify all their recent flaws and spark greater concern about being able to defend the title in their circumstances, but victory would galvanise the “mentality monsters.”

All the while, City will be happily watching the focus being shared by the top two and waiting to remind the global audience that talking about winning the league without heavily factoring them into the equation is a fool’s errand.

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