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A whole new ball game

Five-star United rediscover spark


Anthony Martial celebrates with team-mate Jesse
Lingard after scoring his team’s third goal in the 5-1win over Cardiff City last night. Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Anthony Martial celebrates with team-mate Jesse Lingard after scoring his team’s third goal in the 5-1win over Cardiff City last night. Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Anthony Martial celebrates with team-mate Jesse Lingard after scoring his team’s third goal in the 5-1win over Cardiff City last night. Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Manchester United's fans came to party like it was 1999 - the year of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Champions League final winner, scored from a different time dimension. In one go, United retraced their steps to a gilded past while leaping into a future without Jose Mourinho's gloom.

For months it was plain that United's players had become inhibited, morose, detached from the club's tradition of going after opponents with trumpets blaring rather than trying to out-organise them.

Solskjaer and Mike Phelan, who has been recalled from a wilderness he should never have been sent to, took over at Cardiff City with a heaven-sent chance to restore the enjoyment, "the smiles". In a science-fixated game, the human factor still matters, and it took 181 seconds to kick in through Marcus Rashford's goal from a free-kick.

United were changed in shape, spirit and purpose. And while the locals wondered whether Solskjaer might be booed, given his three wins in 18 matches as Cardiff manager, United's followers turned the clock back 19 years to the Camp Nou comeback.

With a Norwegian flag draped from a railing, the away support reprised a song less often heard these days at Old Trafford: "You are my Solskjaer, my Ole Solskjaer, you make me happy, when skies are grey."

It began as a lark, to welcome Solskjaer home, but soon became a celebration of goals flying in: five in all, including a third, by Anthony Martial, reminiscent of Liverpool's attacking play. Quick feet, zigzagging and telepathy were not virtues often seen in the more turgid phases of Mourinho's reign as United became hesitant and clunky.

Here, Paul Pogba emerged from internal exile to stroke and poke passes to Martial and Rashford. United scored four in less than an hour and were more incisive and decisive. In the hours to come, some pundits will suspend Christmas compassion to ask why United's players were suddenly able to play this way, four days after Mourinho's sacking.

Where have they been hiding? Roy Keane thinks he knows. "This idea that these players are upset - it's not just United, but the modern player,"

Keane said. "They are not just weak players, but are very weak human beings. You cannot say a word to them. Players are quick to hide behind social media, their cars and their girlfriend's dog, the whole lot."

United motored to Solskjaer's old patch 22 points behind leaders Liverpool, 17 games into a 38-game campaign. A Norwegian TV presenter speculated that this was the biggest moment in his nation's sporting history: or, at least, the most observed.

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It was no trifle for United either, after months of ennui, caused by deteriorating results, Mourinho's negativity and the torpor of players lambasted this week by Keane, the unofficial keeper of United's fangs. United's haul of 26 points from 17 games represented their worst start since 1990. You had to go back to 1962-63 to find a season when they were conceding more goals than the 29 that had found their net this season.

They have borrowed a manager from Molde in Norway and face a tortuous battle to extract Mauricio Pochettino from Spurs.

The catalyst for this comfortable win against relegation candidates was not so much the hiring of Solskjaer as the firing of Mourinho. Solskjaer said his mission was to "get us smiling, get us winning games" and told the players: "Go out and express yourselves, take risks."

Nobody can yet know how good this team can be, because their talents have been hidden by soporific football. There have been times when you felt United could afford to sell half these players without being significantly diminished.

But when a dead hand is lifted, the spirit rises from the floor, players are enthused, the ball goes forward quickly and the whole team acquires locomotion. All this, in Cardiff, in the strip United wore on that miracle night in 1999: red shirts, white socks and shorts.

Yet this was no nostalgia festival. United have run out of chances to get decisions wrong, to mess things up. A "caretaker manager bounce" is not enough by itself. United need these players to see a 5-1 win in Cardiff as just a small beginning; they need Romelu Lukaku, when he returns from compassionate leave, to regain his zest, and Alexis Sanchez (injured) to remember who he is, or was.

Then, a new sporting director can improve the recruitment and the next manager can consign the post-Alex Ferguson hiatus (2013-18) to history.

Norwegian TV crews say a million viewers in Solskjaer's homeland will watch his first home game as United manager, against Huddersfield, from a population of five million. Solskjaer was not the most obvious Manchester United manager, but he knows where the club's buttons are, and how to push them.


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