Premier League managers are already feeling the strain amid cascading numbers of COVID-19 cases and mid-season injuries. Now many top bosses stand to lose stars to the Africa Cup of Nations.

Africa's greatest football show – now commonly known as AFCON – gets under way on Sunday in Cameroon.

Although the 2019 edition was held in June and July, it has historically been a January-into-February tournament and has returned to that place on the calendar.

A host of Premier League big names are hoping to make an impact during the four-week tournament, which falls slap-bang in the middle of European club campaigns, causing a major clash of competitions.

Premier League clubs certainly cannot complain of a lack of fair warning. It was June 2020 when African football chiefs decided the 2021 edition of the tournament would have to be pushed back by 12 months to a January 2022 start, in the hope the coronavirus crisis would have eased.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at which teams from the English top flight might feel its impact the most.

Can Reds cling on in title battle?

If Liverpool lose no further ground on leaders Manchester City by the time their stars return from AFCON, then Jurgen Klopp would surely settle for that.

The 2019-20 Premier League champions have taken two points from a possible nine to leave the title as effectively City's to lose, and now Klopp is going to have to get by without Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita.

Egyptian striker Salah is the Premier League's leader in goals (16) and assists (9, level with Trent Alexander Arnold) so far this season. He has taken 80 shots in 20 games (38 of these have hit the target), played 12 throughballs and created 40 chances from open play: in each of those categories he is at the top of the Premier League charts for players defined by Opta as forwards.

How do you cope without such a contribution? Having Mane on hand would help, but Mane will be turning out for Senegal, a team who, like Salah's Egypt, are firmly in the mix as serious trophy contenders. Don't expect either back at the end of the group stage.

Mane has eight Premier League goals this term, including the opener at Chelsea recently. That goal return puts Mane joint-second among African scorers in the Premier League this season, level with Watford's Emmanuel Dennis, who is not in Nigeria's squad.

Mane has played 19 throughballs and has made 23 tackles to boot, which is the seventh highest number of tackles by a forward in the league this season, a rarely mentioned attribute of his game. He does not always tackle with his elbow, either.

Keita will presumably be less of a miss, with the Guinean's Anfield contribution remaining underwhelming, but Liverpool have been so hard hit by absentees recently that to lose anybody for up to five weeks is an inconvenience.

They are at least assured of Joel Matip's presence this month. The centre-back last played for Cameroon in 2015 and has retired from international duty. That is bad news for the AFCON hosts but helps Liverpool, given Matip remains a sturdy presence, with a duel success of 69.47 per cent this season ranking him third among Premier League defenders with 10 or more appearances, and a passing accuracy of 88.89 per cent putting him eighth in that metric.

Liverpool only have two league games inked in between now and the end of AFCON, against Brentford and Crystal Palace, but the Reds also have two postponed fixtures to be slipped in somewhere along the line.

Wintertime Blues?

Pep Guardiola's Manchester City hold a 10-point lead over second-placed Chelsea, with Liverpool a point further back but possessing a game in hand on the top two. Reigning champions City have won 11 straight Premier League games and the Citizens have the resources to be able to cope with the short-term loss of Riyad Mahrez, who will captain Algeria.

Mahrez's six goals and four assists this season have come at a startling rate. Given the depth in City's squad, he does not always start, so to appreciate his contribution it is worth looking at his numbers per 90 minutes on the pitch.

The former Leicester City forward is averaging 0.64 goals and 0.43 assists per 90 minutes – impressively close to Salah's return of 0.81 and 0.45 in those categories – and is one of only four Premier League players with 10 or more appearances to average at least 1.00 goal involvements per 90 (Michael Olise 1.43, Salah 1.26, Roberto Firmino 1.24, Mahrez 1.07).

The Blues of Chelsea may have concerns over the absence of goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, given the Senegalese's stabilising influence at the back. His save percentage of 77.14 has only been beaten this season in the league by Wolves' Jose Sa (80.82) and Arsenal's Aaron Ramsdale (77.46).

Spaniard Kepa Arrizabalaga struggled in the early stages of his Chelsea career and is now the undoubted understudy.

Yet Kepa's form when given an opportunity this season has not given such cause for concern. The former Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper has been chiefly used in cup action, and he has achieved a remarkable save percentage of 81.48, suggesting that for a short run of games, he could be a perfectly able deputy.

Can an exodus to Africa affect the race for Europe?

Will fourth-placed Arsenal miss Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang? It seems unlikely now, given he was dropped and stripped of the captaincy after a disciplinary breach before heading off to join Gabon. He has not played for a month. The Gunners won five games in a row without him, including four in the league, before being unlucky to lose to Manchester City.

Cold facts tell us Arsenal have a points average of 1.9 per Premier League game when Aubameyang has started games this season, and 1.5 when he has been either a substitute or out of the team, but those figures may not be significant given the momentum Mikel Arteta's players have built in the recent absence of the 32-year-old. His continuing exile from the first team seems unlikely to cause much consternation.

For manager Arteta to lose Thomas Partey (Ghana) at this point is a blow though, with the former Atletico Madrid player having been excellent in the 2-1 defeat to City, having been slowly building up to such a performance. He had more touches, won more duels, made more tackles and played more successful passes than any other Arsenal player.

Arsenal have a big derby at Tottenham coming up on January 16, and they might feel Partey's absence that day, particularly given Spurs, who currently sit sixth, are sending no current first-teamers away to AFCON.

Splitting the north London rivals for now are West Ham, in fifth, and it will surely have hurt David Moyes to wave off Said Benrahma for a month of Algeria duty. The playmaker has five goals and four assists in the league this season, as well as making 83 ball recoveries and creating 21 chances in open play. That makes him one of only 13 players in the competition to top both 80 recoveries and 20 open-play chances created, and one of only five Premier League stars to tick both boxes and score at least five times. Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha, away with Ivory Coast, is another member of that small group.

Seventh-placed Manchester United will lose Eric Bailly to Ivory Coast too. But with Phil Jones back in the first team, will Bailly be missed? The former Villarreal centre-back has played just 217 minutes in the Premier League this season. United youth prospect Hannibal Mejbri is also away, in his case with Tunisia.

Further into mid-table, Wolves must find an alternative to the excellent Romain Saiss (tackle success rate 72.73 per cent) on the left side of their defence, after he joined up with Morocco. Brighton and Hove Albion powerhouse Yves Bissouma has the highest tackle success rate among midfielders to have made more than 40 such challenges in the Premier League this season (50 attempted, 35 won: 70 per cent hit rate) and he will line up for Mali after ending an international exile.

Leicester City sent away striker Kelechi Iheanacho (2 goals, 4 assists this season) for Nigeria service at a bad time for the Foxes, given injured Jamie Vardy faces several weeks out of action.

Palace are firmly in favour of players heading away to represent their countries, but the Eagles never particularly like to be without Zaha (5 goals, 1 assist, 86 dribbles). Since his return from Manchester United in August 2014, Palace have averaged 1.2 points and a 32.9 per cent win percentage with Zaha in their starting line-up, and 0.9 points and a 24.5 win percentage when he has not been in that matchday XI. The loss of Cheikhou Kouyate (80.56 per cent success rate from 36 tackles) to Senegal duty may also diminish the sturdiness of Patrick Vieira's Eagles spine.

Can Clarets cope without Cornet?

The relegation scrap seems more likely to be affected by transfer market activity than departures to AFCON.

Newcastle United and Norwich City, the league's bottom two, are sending nobody away, while fourth-bottom Watford have kept Dennis (8 goals, 5 assists) and it remains to be seen what happens to Ismaila Sarr (5 goals), who has been absent with injury of late but has headed for checks with Senegal doctors.

Burnley, who sit 18th, are seemingly the team to watch carefully here. Maxwel Cornet, now away with Ivory Coast, has scored six Premier League goals from just 10 shots on target, and Sean Dyche must find a way to make the Clarets impactful without the former Lyon man.

Serial trophy winner Medhi Benatia announced his retirement on Thursday as Juventus and Bayern Munich stars past and present hailed the powerhouse defender.

The 34-year-old former Morocco captain played a part in five consecutive league championship wins, firstly when landing two Bundesliga titles at Bayern in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.

He joined Juventus from the German giants and featured in each of the next three campaigns as the Turin giants mopped up successive Scudetto triumphs, also leading his country at the 2018 World Cup.

Benatia was born in France and began his career in the Marseille youth set-up. He shot to prominence after a move from Clermont to Udinese in 2010, which paved the way for a switch to Roma in 2013, and one year later he was prised away by Bayern amid a scramble by elite clubs for his services.

After a double-winning second season, Benatia moved on to Juventus in 2016, before leaving the Bianconeri to sign for Qatari outfit Al-Duhail midway through the 2018-19 season.

While at Juventus, he was part of the squad that reached the 2016-17 Champions League final and also won the Coppa Italia twice. Most recently he has been with Turkish Super Lig side Fatih Karagumruk, who said Benatia had retired because of injury.

Responding to Benatia's announcement, which he revealed on Instagram, Juventus striker Paulo Dybala sent a heart emoji to his former team-mate. Ex-Bayern winger Franck Ribery did likewise, with current Juve full-back Juan Cuadrado and former favourite Sami Khedira also among those that sent greetings.

Blaise Matuidi, the former Juventus and France midfield general, wrote: "What a career, my brother. I remember those days at [French national football centre] Clairefontaine where we began to dream of being a professional footballer, but by dint of work you did much more than that. Incredible clubs, captain of a nation and having won a good number of titles, you can only be proud brother."

Manchester United defender Eric Bailly joined in the praise, writing: "Bravo capitano. Great man, great career, very good player and finally an example."

Paris Saint-Germain full-back Achraf Hakimi praised his former national team skipper, with the message: "Capitanooo. Good luck in your new stage big bro."

Announcing his decision to retire, Benatia said: "From a young age I had only one dream, to become a professional footballer. To get there, I had to force myself to work hard, make sacrifices, but above all set new goals at each stage of my career.

"This job has also allowed me to defend and represent my country, Morocco, with whom I have experienced unforgettable moments... in particular the 2018 World Cup."

Manchester United defender Eric Bailly said the players have been told about the arrival of a new manager amid mounting speculation regarding Ralf Rangnick.

United are reportedly set to appoint former RB Leipzig boss Rangnick on an interim basis until the end of the season.

Rangnick, currently working as head of sports and development at Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow, is the man United are targeting to lead them through until the end of the season, which is when they intend to make a more permanent appointment – Paris Saint-Germain head coach Mauricio Pochettino and Ajax's Erik ten Hag have been heavily linked.

Michael Carrick continued in his caretaker role for Sunday's 1-1 draw at Premier League leaders Chelsea, though Bailly lifted the lid on matters at Old Trafford.

"We were told in the dressing room that a new manager was coming," Bailly told RMC Sport.

"We are working hard for now with Carrick and then we will see."

Jadon Sancho's opener against the run of play was cancelled out by Jorginho's penalty at Stamford Bridge, where Carrick named Red Devils superstar Cristiano Ronaldo among the substitutes.

During the month of November so far, United (17) have mustered the fewest number of shots of all Premier League sides, whilst also facing more attempts than any team (60).

United managed just one further attempt after taking the lead at Chelsea, with their total of three shots their lowest in a Premier League game since April 2017 against Manchester City (also 3).

Meanwhile, Carrick became the first Englishman to take charge of United in a league game since Ron Atkinson in back November 1986 (1-1 against Coventry).

Manchester City inflicted another humbling home defeat on bitter rivals Manchester United with a routine 2-0 derby victory in Saturday's Premier League clash.

Pep Guardiola's side had failed to win any of their previous four league meetings with United but were deservedly two goals ahead at half-time.

Eric Bailly became the first United player to score an own goal against City in the Premier League and Bernardo Silva profited from some terrible defending to squeeze in a second shortly before the interval.

United, beaten 5-0 by Liverpool in their most recent match at Old Trafford, failed to offer any sort of response in the second half as the pressure continues to grow on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

United had kept three successive clean sheets against City in the league but were behind inside seven minutes when Bailly sliced Joao Cancelo's whipped cross from the left into his own net.

Cristiano Ronaldo had a powerful volley kept out by Ederson – United's only on-target attempt of the first half – but only David de Gea kept the scoreline down as City took complete control.

However, after keeping out Gabriel Jesus, Kevin De Bruyne and team-mate Victor Lindelof, De Gea was far too easily beaten by Silva, who ghosted in behind Luke Shaw and turned in Cancelo's cross from a tight angle.

Chances were hard to come by in a far quieter second period, with the visitors going closest to finding the net through a Phil Foden strike that grazed the outside of the post late on.

What does it mean? United lose again at Old Trafford

City may not have managed the five goals Liverpool scored here two weeks ago, but the manner of the victory was just as straightforward and was never in doubt from the moment they scored their second goal.

United have now lost eight matches at Old Trafford in all competitions this calendar year, which is their worst-such record since 1989, and could find themselves 11 points off top spot should Chelsea beat Burnley later on Saturday.

Guardiola's men looked far more like their usual selves on the back of last week's shock 2-0 loss at home to Crystal Palace, meanwhile, as they moved back to within two points of leaders Chelsea, who have that game in hand.

Cancelo runs the show

The attacking left-back played in the cross for Bailly's own goal and sent in a delightful delivery, albeit one that should have been dealt with, for Silva's strike – the Portugal international's third goal in his last four appearances at Old Trafford.

Cancelo had more touches (125) than any player on the field – Lindelof was United's most involved player with 67 – while nobody managed more shots (four) and tackles (four) in what was an impressive all-round display.

United's calamitous defending

From Bailly turning an easy-to-deal-with cross into his own net – one that should never have been allowed to enter the box in the first place – to De Gea and Shaw watching on as Silva turned in a second, United's defending was yet again shambolic.

The Red Devils have now conceded at least once in each of their last 14 home games in all competitions, their longest run without a clean sheet at Old Trafford since a club-record run of 21 between April 1958 and March 1959.

What's next?

United travel to Watford on their return to Premier League action after the international break. City host Everton at the Etihad Stadium on November 21.

Sevilla defender Jules Kounde admitted he could leave the LaLiga side in the off-season amid links with Manchester United.

Kounde has emerged as one of the most sought-after centre-backs in the transfer market after countryman Dayot Upamecano joined Bayern Munich and Ibrahima Konate agreed to swap RB Leipzig for Liverpool.

United have long been linked with a move for Kounde, who helped Sevilla to a fourth-placed finish in LaLiga this term, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Premier League giants reportedly eye a new partner for Harry Maguire.

The 22-year-old France international – also a reported target for the likes of Real Madrid, Chelsea and Arsenal – said he wants to win trophies.

"Regarding my future, I may change this summer," Kounde told reporters as France prepare for Wednesday's international friendly against Wales, ahead of the upcoming Euro 2020.

"Nothing is for sure yet, I did not take a final decision.

"Obviously, my goal is to play one day in one of the greatest clubs to keep improving and to win trophies.

"Starting every year the season knowing that the goal is to win this or this trophy. I may move but for now, it is not the case."

United already boast captain Maguire – the most expensive defender in history – Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly in defence, while Axel Tuanzebe has struggled for regular game time.

When comparing Kounde to Maguire, Lindelof and Bailly across domestic league action in 2020-21, the former ranks first in passing accuracy (90.11 per cent) and clean sheets (15).

Kounde is only second to Maguire in tackles (27 to 29), tackle success (55.6 to 58.6 per cent), interceptions (40 to 60), clearances (100 to 122), recoveries (100 to 122), duel success (60.7 to 65.7 per cent) and aerials won (102 to 135).

Eric Bailly has warned Manchester United he will only remain at Old Trafford as long as he is a first-team regular, despite last month signing a contract extension.

The centre-back's new deal keeps him at United until 2024, when his previous contract had been set to expire at the end of next season.

But Bailly suggests that agreement will count for little if he remains on the fringes of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team.

The ex-Villarreal defender, who hopes to face his former club in Wednesday's Europa League final, has featured in only 20 (33.3 per cent) of United's 60 games in all competitions so far this season, ranking 19th in the Red Devils squad.

And that mark is roughly par for Bailly's United career, having appeared in only 105 (35.7 per cent) and started just 92 (31.3 per cent) of the 294 matches the club have played since his 2016 signings.

Injuries have played their part, with knee and groin issues keeping the player out for extended periods over the past five years, but he has been an unused substitute 18 times this term alone.

This season's 1,590 minutes are Bailly's most since his debut campaign in England (3,230) but still trail Harry Maguire (4,653) and Victor Lindelof (3,908) by some distance.

"Competition is always good to improve," Bailly told The Times. "I just say that I want to stay in case I get the chance to play.

"I don't want to be a starter one game and a substitute for another five.

"If that happens, I will have to look for another solution. The new contract is fine but if I don't play I will be open to listen to other proposals."

Only 39 of Bailly's United outings have come since Solskjaer was appointed in December 2018, in which time the 20-time English champions have played 150 times.

But the defender, who has therefore featured in just 26.0 per cent of the manager's games, was encouraged by discussions prior to signing the contract extension.

"I spoke to him and he told me he wanted me to stay," Bailly added.

"The most important thing was not the renewal but the conversation we had: we sat down, we talked and he told me what he wanted from me and that he wanted me to continue."

Manchester United ended the Premier League season without losing an away match as they beat Wolves 2-1 at Molineux on the final day.

With one eye on next week's Europa League final and with second place in the table secure, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer rested the majority of his key players against a Wolves side playing under coach Nuno Espirito Santo for the final time.

Anthony Elanga marked his second Premier League start with the opening goal, but Nelson Semedo equalised for the home side to the delight of the reduced-capacity crowd.

Juan Mata, perhaps playing his final league game for the club, restored United's lead from the penalty spot deep into first-half injury time.

It proved enough for the Red Devils, who also handed a first-team debut to youngster Hannibal Mejbri as a late substitute.

Elanga's control and shooting had let him down with two early opportunities, but he made no mistake with his third, planting a firm header past Rui Patricio from a superb left-foot cross from Daniel James.

Wolves, who lost the lively Adama Traore to an apparent hamstring problem, levelled six minutes before the break after exploiting the United left. Nemanja Matic's slip allowed Leander Dendoncker to play in Fabio Silva, who cut the ball back for Semedo to sweep into the bottom-left corner.

Brandon Williams had an unlikely chance to restore United's lead but Patricio saved well at the near post from the full-back's effort.

However, the visitors got their second goal before the interval, Mata sending Patricio the wrong way from the penalty spot after a VAR check showed Romain Saiss had caught the ankle of Donny van de Beek.

Wolves enjoyed the majority of the second-half possession but struggled to muster attempts on Dean Henderson's goal, with Silva denied a good chance by the covering Axel Tuanzebe after Eric Bailly's error.

Elanga and Amad Diallo threatened on the break late on but Patricio was on hand to keep the difference to one goal.


What does it mean? United complete 2020-21 unbeaten on the road

United are just the fourth team to go an entire English top-flight season without losing an away match, after Preston North End (1888-89), Arsenal (2001-02) and Arsenal again (2003-04).

They end the season second, their highest finish since 2017-18, although the 12-point gap to champions Manchester City shows their need to strengthen before next term. Wolves end the campaign in 13th, with 45 points.

Elanga makes his mark

Elanga is the 19th teenager to score in the Premier League for United, a tally bettered only by Arsenal (20).

The 19-year-old may not be involved against Villarreal, but he has made significant strides into the first-team picture in recent weeks and could prove a reliable option for Solskjaer in 2021-22.

Bailly a concern ahead of Europa League final

With Harry Maguire unlikely to be fit, it is expected Bailly will partner Victor Lindelof against Villarreal next week.

However, the Ivorian's performance was far from steady here and he needed his young centre-back partner Tuanzebe to spare his blushes.

What's next?

While Wolves now look ahead to a new season with a new man in charge, United have three days to prepare for the Europa League final in Gdansk.

Manchester United secured a place in the Europa League final with an 8-5 aggregate victory over Roma coming after a 3-2 defeat in Thursday's second leg.

Despite United's commanding lead from the first leg, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fielded a strong side in the Italian capital and was rewarded when Edinson Cavani opened the scoring in the first half.

Edin Dzeko, who also scored at Old Trafford, nodded in an equaliser and Bryan Cristante struck soon after to give Roma some slender hope of a famous turnaround, with David de Gea making 10 saves in total to keep the scoreline down.

Cavani headed in a second midway through the second half to ease some of the nerves for United, who will face Villarreal in what will be their first cup final since Solskjaer took over from Mourinho back in December 2018, despite Nicola Zalewski's late winner on the day.

De Gea made a brilliant close-range stop from the returning Gianluca Mancini after only four minutes, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan nodded wide at the far post from a corner shortly afterwards.

Cavani sent a lob over Antonio Cristante's goal and then fired a powerful effort straight at the keeper after being put through by Bruno Fernandes' clever pass.

Roma saw Lorenzo Pellegrini thwarted at close range by De Gea as they continued to push for a lifeline in the tie, but United struck with their next chance six minutes before the break.

Fernandes and Fred combined well, the latter slipped the ball to Cavani and the striker smashed a finish past Mirante from the edge of the box.

Roma, to their credit, continued to play positively and drew level in the match 57 minutes in, Dzeko heading the ball home after Pedro had scuffed a half-volley across goal.

Three minutes later, and Roma had the lead, Cristante firing a superb first-time shot past De Gea after Fred was dispossessed on the edge of the United box.

Dzeko fired straight at De Gea from point-blank range as Roma suddenly sensed United were there to be attacked, but Cavani ghosted in behind Mancini to head in Fernandes' cross from the left and make sure of his side's place in the final in Gdansk on May 26.

Zalewski struck a third for Roma on 83 minutes, his volley deflecting through De Gea's legs, but it was not enough for the Giallorossi.

Eric Bailly has signed a new contract to keep him at Manchester United until at least June 2024.

Bailly's previous deal was deal was due to expire at the end of next season, but the 27-year-old defender has agreed terms to extend his stay.

The Ivory Coast centre-back, who has the option of a further 12-month extension on his new contract, has made only 15 appearances in another injury-hit season for United and is eager to but those troubles behind him.

"I'm very happy. This decision is something I didn't have to think about, I love this club and I love playing for Manchester United," Bailly said.

"I'm happy and so are my family, everything is good. Now the moment with my injury has passed and I'm fit and feel good, and that's it. A new contract is like a new challenge and I'm ready for this."

Jose Mourinho has been out of work less than 48 hours but speculation of his next job is already mounting.

The Portuguese has already declared he is "ready to go again", despite a sizeable pay-out from Tottenham.

Tottenham sacked Mourinho on Monday with Spurs sitting seventh in the Premier League.

 

TOP STORY – MOURINHO ENTERS CELTIC COACHING RACE

Mourinho is in the mix to be the new coach of Scottish powerhouse Celtic according to The Sun.

Former Bournemouth coach Eddie Howe is the favourite to be appointed Neil Lennon's replacement at Celtic Park.

But 'The Special One' is in contention, despite his hefty wage demands and line of suitors.

 

ROUND-UP

- Bayern Munich's David Alaba has agreed a five-year deal with Real Madrid with the contract to be signed in the coming weeks according to Sky Sports.

- Departing Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero has been offered a two-year contract by Barcelona according to TyC Sports.

- Football Insider reports Aston Villa may enter the race for Jesse Lingard who has enjoyed a super loan spell at West Ham United from Manchester United.

- Manchester United defender Eric Bailly is wanted by Spanish LaLiga club Real Betis claims The Sun.

- Julian Draxler is ready to leave PSG with a return to his homeland to join Bayern Munich his preference reports Foot Mercato.

Manchester United are in talks with Eric Bailly over a new contract, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has confirmed.

The centre-back, who played in his 100th game in all competitions for the Red Devils as they drew 1-1 with Milan in the Europa League last-16 first leg on Thursday, sees his deal expire next year.

Bailly joined for a reported £30million from Villarreal in 2016, making him the club's first signing under Jose Mourinho, but persistent injury troubles mean he has started just 27 league matches in the past four seasons.

The Ivory Coast international, who turns 27 next month, has largely impressed when called upon this season, with United keeping eight clean sheets and conceding 12 goals in the 15 matches Bailly has played.

Indeed, since his debut in August 2016, United have won 65 per cent of matches with Bailly in the starting line-up compared with 53 per cent without him. They have also averaged more points per game (2.1 compared to 1.8) and fewer goals against (0.8 compared to 1.0).

Solskjaer is expected to pursue the signing of a new central defender in the transfer window but he appears keen to keep Bailly at the club regardless of potential incomings.

"We've started talking to Eric and Eric's representatives," Solskjaer said. "Eric's been keeping fitter for longer and you can see Eric's performances as well. I've been very happy with him.

"His playing style has sometimes made him lose too many games because 100 games is not enough for the period he's been here. He's getting more and more robust, so he's one we're talking to."

United host West Ham in the Premier League on Sunday hoping to build on last weekend's 2-0 derby win at Manchester City, while also moving nine points ahead of David Moyes' side in fifth.

While he accepts the gap to league leaders City is perhaps too big to bridge - Pep Guardiola's men are 14 points clear, having played a game more - Solskjaer is keen to strengthen the grip on second spot.

He is also happy not to have to face in-form Jesse Lingard, who has impressed on loan at the Hammers since his January move but is ineligible to play against his parent club.

Solskjaer said: "For Jesse, it's really worked out; for David [Moyes], it's really worked out. And for us as a club as well, because we know that Jesse's position is a 10 and we've got Bruno [Fernandes] there.

"For me, it was a no-brainer to get Jesse the chance to prove himself and play some football again. He's really been bright for them. He's finding back to himself.

"I think they've been brilliant. We played them in the FA Cup not long ago as well. We went to extra time, it was a tight, even game, he's got players who score goals, creative, defend really well, really difficult on set-plays, and David's done a tremendous job that we know he's capable of.

"We're very happy for him and we know this is a big game for us. It's maybe too far ahead to City, so we need to consolidate our place in the top two or three, hopefully."

United have something of an injury crisis for the match. Paul Pogba, Donny van de Beek and Juan Mata may not be fit before the international break in the final two weeks of March, while goalkeeper David de Gea may still need to quarantine for a few more days after returning from Spain following the birth of his daughter.

Forwards Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani are also unlikely to be fit, meaning 18-year-old Amad Diallo, who scored his first goal for the club as a substitute against Milan, could be called upon again.

"It's a big change for him, he's moved over here by himself but he's coming into training every day, he's working really hard, he knows he's got a lot to learn," Solskjaer added.

"He's an exciting talent, of course, but he'll have to get used to the tempo and the quality of the level he's playing at now.

"He didn't play much for Atalanta, either, so we're gradually giving him more and more, but he's been hungry to learn. His appetite in training has been spot on."

Jurgen Klopp out, Steven Gerrard in?

Klopp ended Liverpool's 30-year wait for league glory last season, but the German manager could be set for a return to his homeland.

His exit could see Gerrard return to Merseyside.

 

TOP STORY – GERRARD TO REPLACE KLOPP IN LIVERPOOL RETURN

Steven Gerrard may soon return to Anfield but as manager to replace Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, according to The Mirror.

Liverpool reportedly expect Klopp to take up an opportunity with Germany in the near future amid doubts over long-time head coach Joachim Low.

As a result, Liverpool legend Gerrard has been sounded out as he has Rangers on a cusp of a drought-breaking league title in Scotland.

Gerrard, who made more than 700 appearances for Liverpool, took control of Rangers in 2018.

 

ROUND-UP

- Erling Haaland seems to be on every club's wish list but the Mirror reports Manchester City have joined the queue for the Borussia Dortmund star. City manager Pep Guardiola and Haaland's agent Mina Raiola have a testy relationship but the Premier League leaders will press ahead with an alleged £100million (€115m) deal. English pair Chelsea and Manchester United are also reportedly interested along with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.

- Fabrizio Romano says Chelsea want to keep veteran defender Thiago Silva beyond the 2020-21 season. Chelsea signed Silva on a free transfer following his PSG exit.

- LaLiga giants Barcelona are in the market for a young defender and have set their sights on Inter's 21-year-old Alessandro Bastoni, according to Calciomercato.

Arsenal are in the hunt for Wigan Athletic sensation Kyle Joseph, with the teenager scoring five goals in 14 appearances. The Mirror claims the Gunners have joined Celtic and Rangers in their interest in the London-born Scotland youth international whose current contract expires in June.

Liverpool and rivals United are eyeing Leicester City's Harvey Barnes, reports the Mirror. The 23-year-old has established himself as a key player for the Foxes.

- Eric Bailly is in talks with United over a new long-term contract, claims The Sun. The 26-year-old defender, who has been plagued by injuries at Old Trafford, is out of contract in 2022. It comes amid United's reported interest in Sevilla's Jules Kounde, Ibrahima Konate of RB Leipzig and Brighton and Hove Albion star Ben White.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer acknowledges Manchester United must sharpen up in defence if they are to achieve their ambitions of winning major trophies. 

United eased into the last 16 of the Europa League on Thursday after a goalless draw with Real Sociedad at Old Trafford secured a 4-0 aggregate victory. 

It was their 16th clean sheet in all competitions this season, the third-most of any Premier League team, behind only Chelsea (19) and Manchester City (24). 

However, conceding goals has been a problem throughout 2020-21. The Red Devils have shipped 46 across all competitions – more than twice as many as City (20) – with 32 of those coming in the league, more than any other side presently in the top five. 

Although 11 of those were conceded in United's first three league matches of the season – an aberration Solskjaer put down to a lack of pre-season preparations – their defensive frailties have cost them valuable points despite scoring 53 goals, the most in the top flight, and 85 in all competitions, as many as rivals City. 

Ahead of Sunday's clash with Chelsea, who are unbeaten under new head coach Thomas Tuchel, Solskjaer highlighted the need to become more resolute at the back in order to close the gap to Pep Guardiola's men, who are top by 10 points.

The United manager told reporters: "We're on a good path. We feel we have improved but we're nowhere near where we want to be, and that's higher up the table, winning trophies. So, the hunger in the group and the mentality in the group is good, and that's the main thing now: that we keep on improving. 

"We know we've scored quite a few goals; of course, we need to be a better team defensively. 

"Certainly, the amount of goals we've conceded, even though we had 11 in the first three games, those three games almost don't count in my head because we were so far away from a Man United team in the preparation, no pre-season. 

"Even then, we've conceded too many goals, so we need to improve on that, definitely. And win tighter games: we've had many games against, you know, City, Chelsea, nil-nil, Liverpool nil-nil, so get the goals in those games. 

"We just have to focus and tick one game off at a time. The [next] three games are massive. We've got Chelsea just behind us, City a way in front of us, and we can't let them run further away if we have ambitions of catching them and we can't give Chelsea too much hope of catching us, either. 

"It's still 38 games for every team, so if you get a run, either good or bad, it might impact you. Of course, as a group and a culture, bouncing back for us after a couple of setbacks we've had, it's an important period. 

"But our group mentality is really good, and we look forward to these games. We know Thomas has come in, it's changed a little bit at Chelsea, so it's going to be a great challenge for us. 

"You can see the results, the stats, the possession they've had. They keep teams away from their goal, keep the possession. He's done really well. 

"It's never easy coming into a season halfway through, so he must be pleased as well. Hopefully, we can stop that run. That's my job now." 

With captain Harry Maguire rested, Eric Bailly produced a strong performance against Sociedad alongside Victor Lindelof, making three clearances and winning all four of his contested duels. 

"Both of them played well, so Eric and Victor and Harry, three very good centre-backs that I can rely on, and Axel [Tuanzebe] as well. I've got four to choose from," said Solskjaer, who has a decision to make for his team against Chelsea. 

"Sometimes it's the opposition, sometimes it's the form, sometimes it's little things. I think the two of them will keep on playing and they might be playing together as well." 

Anthony Martial endured another goalless outing, producing only one shot on target. The 25-year-old has now failed to score in 14 of his past 15 appearances in all competitions and has not found the net in his six games since scoring twice in the 9-0 demolition of Southampton. 

"Anthony knows what we want and Anthony's working really hard to do well for the team. That's what's pleasing me," Solskjaer added. 

"I see him every day in training. He's not going to sit down and wait for things to happen; he knows he has to make things happen for himself. 

"We encourage him, coach him, and we know he's got this quality and class. Everyone goes through a little difficult patch at the moment, or at times, and Anthony, I think we saw tonight, he's working harder and that's the main thing."

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