At various points during the early stages of this Premier League season, Manchester City and Manchester United had their defensive capabilities called into question by television pundits.

As soon as the opening weekend 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace, in fact, Gary Neville emptied a bucket of cold water upon transfer speculation surrounding Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's squad.

Speaking on Sky Sports, the former England and United defender gave a damning assessment of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof's centre-back capabilities

"You can talk about Jadon Sancho all you like, but until they get a centre-back in that can run and defend one on one, you're never going to win the league," he said.

A weekend later, City were hammered 5-2 at home to Leicester City – a result that immediately preceded the club-record arrival of Ruben Dias from Benfica.

The Portugal international's debut came in a harum-scarum 1-1 draw at Leeds United, after which beIN Sports' anchor Richard Keys offered a more radical solution to Pep Guardiola.

"It can't be that hard, he could go and watch Roy Hodgson work. Or he could bring Sam Allardyce in on a temporary basis."

Things have changed a little since then. City head into Sunday's top-of-the-table clash 14 points clear of United in second and aiming to extend a 21-match winning run across all competitions.

Central to that, and untouched by the hand of Allardyce, is a water-tight defence and the supreme alliance formed by Dias and a rejuvenated John Stones.

Silk and steel

In the 14 Premier League games Dias and Stones have started in tandem, City boast 13 wins and a draw, keeping 11 clean sheets

Goals for each man in last weekend's 2-1 win over West Ham mean they are responsible for four goals at the other end during these matches – one more than the three they have conceded overall.

In his debut Premier League season, Dias boasts a win percentage of 75 per cent thanks to 18 victories from 24 matches.

Stones' own win rate leaps to a frankly absurd 94 per cent, finishing on the winning side in 15 of his 16 Premier League outings in 2020-21. Guardiola's men have only conceded four times with him on the pitch.

Though Keys opined that Guardiola might have been sacked for his "reckless" spending before settling upon Dias, acclaim for the Catalan tactician and his first-choice central defenders has otherwise been close to universal.

Over on the red side of Manchester, however, Neville still isn't happy.

Drawing blanks and protecting keepers

Despite being the centre-back pairing in each of United's five 0-0 Premier League draws in "big six" encounters this season, last month Neville described Lindelof and Maguire as a "problem" to one another on account of their individual attributes.

Demanding defensive changes for a team who have just run up three consecutive goalless draws in all competitions might, on the face of it, look like a fairly off-target conclusion.

However, outside of those matches that were as high on anticipation as they proved low on goals, another picture emerges.

In 20 Premier League games together, Lindelof and Maguire have seven clean sheets this term – only two outside of big-six encounters. United have won half of those games, drawing eight and losing two, leaving them way down on City's 92.9 per cent success rate when Dias and Stones start together.

Overall, United have conceded nearly double the amount City have let in across the Premier League season, with 32 set against 17.

Expected goals on target (xGOT) numbers collected by Opta – figures that illustrate the overall quality of chances faced  - show City's first-choice goalkeeper Ederson is better protected by his defence than United number one David de Gea.

Ederson has conceded 15 times and has an xGOT of 18.61, meaning he has conceded fewer goals than expected, something that cannot be said for De Gea, who will sit out the weekend game after returning home for the birth of his child.

An xGOT figure of 25.9 is outstripped by the 27 the Spain international has let in. Although his negative goals prevented score of 1.1 does Maguire, Lindelof and those others in front of him a slight disservice, he is being given more taxing work to get through than Ederson.

Building from the back

It is not the case that Stones and Dias are flying into numerous last-ditch challenges to spare their goalkeeper, much as they appear to relish that work when it arrives.

A chunk of their value to Guardiola stems from how they are each able to get City swiftly back on the front foot.

Every 90 minutes, Dias averages 16.3 progressive carries, with Stones on 14.7. On this metric, despite his noted ability with the ball at his feet, Maguire tallies 11.8, with Lindelof down on 9.8.

Building play from the back is another non-negotiable for Guardiola's defensive players and City's 161 build-up attacks – open play sequences featuring 10 or more passes that end in a shot or a touch in the opposition penalty area - are the most in the Premier League this season.

Despite the apparent risk they run of playing themselves into trouble, 120 high turnovers against and 14 shot-ending high turnovers are once again the best results in the division.

By contrast, United have conceded 35 shots from high turnovers – the second-worst in the league – from 205 such instances. Solskjaer's men have attempted 91 build-up attacks, suggesting his team create too many problems for themselves.

Stones and Dias have managed their shutouts compilation despite City having the highest defensive line in the Premier League, starting attacks an average of 45.2 metres from their own goal. United's 42.9m is third behind Liverpool, although the lack of pace Neville has highlighted in Solskjaer's first-choice pairing might be encouraging a measure of caution.

Even if Maguire and Lindelof are able to wheel out their effective spoiling act to thwart the City juggernaut this weekend, Neville is right that the bigger picture needs better solutions at his old club. Although, probably nothing as outlandish as suggesting Sam Allardyce as a specialist defensive coach.

Will Kalidou Koulibaly leave Serie A's Napoli?

Koulibaly is one of Europe's finest defenders and the 29-year-old has attracted interest from across Europe.

Bayern Munich are reportedly eyeing the Senegal international.

 

TOP STORY – BAYERN FRONTRUNNERS FOR NAPOLI STAR

Bayern Munich are leading the race to sign Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly, according to Il Mattino.

Koulibaly has long been linked with a move away from Napoli, though the club's valuation has deterred suitors.

But Koulibaly's asking price has reportedly dropped to €45million (£39m), alerting Bayern, as well as Manchester United and Liverpool.

Bild, however, claims Bundesliga champions Bayern have not made an offer for the Napoli star.

 

ROUND-UP

- Bild reports Manchester City are favourites to sign Erling Haaland if Borussia Dortmund sanction an off-season exit. Haaland has been linked with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, Liverpool, ChelseaUnited and Bayern.

- As City target Haaland, Sport Mediaset says Serie A champions Juve are considering a move for veteran forward Sergio Aguero. The Argentina international is out of contract at season's end.

Barca have been offered Bayer Leverkusen star Edmond Tapsoba, claims Sport. Tapsoba is valued at around €40m.

- Wolves are open to selling Adama Traore at a reduced price, according to the Daily Mail. Barca, Liverpool and City have been linked with Traore previously.

- The Sun reports United are considering the sale of star goalkeeper David de Gea. It comes as Dean Henderson expects to become number one next season. The Transfer Window podcast, meanwhile, says United are seeking a new number one amid links to Milan star Gianluigi Donnarumma.

Chelsea remain interested in RB Leipzig centre-back Ibrahima Konate, according to Bild. Konate is not short of admirers, linked to the likes of United and Arsenal.

United have not contacted Eintracht Frankfurt's Andre Silva as an alternative to Haaland, claims Bild.

Manchester City will be aiming to open up a surely unassailable 17-point gap over Manchester United with a win in Sunday's derby, yet former Red Devils winger Nani insists the Premier League leaders are not stronger than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side. 

United have received plenty of negative press lately for their poor recent record when facing other members of the so-called 'big six', with last weekend's 0-0 draw at Chelsea the sixth successive game against such calibre of opponent in which they have failed to score. 

Five of those six matches ended 0-0, while the last time United managed to get a goal against the league's biggest clubs was the 6-1 humiliation by Tottenham in early October. 

Such omens do not offer a particularly bright outlook ahead of their trip to the runaway leaders, with City heading into the weekend just one match away from setting a new club record, having now gone 28 games unbeaten across all competitions.

But ex-United star Nani, who lost four of his eight games against City for the club, insists sheer ability alone is not the reason for the gap in the table. 

Speaking to Stats Perform News, Nani said: "What I have seen of this team and what I saw from last season, United are building a strong team. They are building a young, strong team, so that's very good. 

"Man United have a great coach now and it's a matter of time [before they challenge for honours]. I think some of the players need to get more experience, learning fast how they win certain games in certain moments, because I see moments where there is no chance of losing any points and yet they lost. 

"That's why now, if you see the top of the table, it makes a little bit of difference because otherwise they would be sharing the position in the table with Man City. 

"I don't see Man City stronger than Man United, I see they look more experienced, and they are in a good form. I think the next game will be important for the end of the season if they beat Man City, we have all the chance and I think we're going to win it because that is a different game. But they have to go with everything." 

Despite his confidence in United, Nani appreciates the job Guardiola has done in 2020-21 – after all, City took just 12 points from their first eight matches amid a sluggish start to the season. 

Yet, Guardiola turned things around and City have not dropped a single point since being held to a 1-1 draw by West Brom on December 15, Nani singling out the manager's influence in restoring the confidence of certain key performers.

"I think Guardiola has been doing a great job this season, to get the team together," Nani added. "They seem a very confident team when they play.

"He brought back some players whose confidence was down, like Bernardo Silva. He put Joao Cancelo [in] - Cancelo is doing fantastic for the team, and all the players at the front, they are not scoring so many goals as before, but they have been important.

"There are players who last season did not appear so much, like [Ilkay] Gundogan, who this season has been amazing. He scored so many goals and is giving so many assists. So, it's important when you don't have important players available, like Kevin De Bruyne, you can bring another player who can appear and help the team."

While Nani alluded to Silva's increased importance, it's another Portugal international who is seen as arguably the catalyst to City's improvement this season: Ruben Dias.

The centre-back fits in perfectly with Guardiola's philosophy of building from the back and has formed an outstanding partnership with John Stones – when playing together they have won 13 of 14 Premier League matches this term, keeping 11 clean sheets, and Nani believes Dias has proven himself one of the best around.

"Yes, he's proved already that he's one of the best in the world," Nani continued. "I think if people don't think that, then very soon they will change their mind because the way he's been performing for the team, the way he has been helping in a defensive way, that is one of the reasons in the second half of the season City is performing and conceding less goals.

"It's also partly [down to] John Stones. I think it's important when the defence of the team is solid, it's much easier for the ones who play at the front to perform and to be more relaxed to create the chances to score."

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is yet to concede the Premier League title to runaway leaders and neighbours Manchester City, while he talked up the club's progress.

Stuttering United are second and 14 points adrift of neighbours City ahead of Sunday's Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium.

United go into the fixture having won only two their previous eight Premier League matches, a run that has not only dashed their title hopes but left the Red Devils vulnerable in the top-four race.

Fifth-placed Everton are only five points adrift of United – who are through 27 games – with a match in hand.

Despite United's wobbling form and City's comprehensive advantage, Solskjaer has not given up hope on Premier League silverware.

"There are still 11 games to go in the Premier League," Solskjaer told reporters. "I have always said, let's get to at least March and April before we talk about a title race. You don't talk about title races after 18-19 games.

"We have given ourselves a very good chance of improving on last season by the position we're in. I'd rather be in the position we're in now, compared to the situation we were in last season. But of course, in the Premier League, there are lots of quality teams.

"What we can control is ourselves and if we do our jobs and get as many points as I think we can do, I'm sure we'll be up there."

United are unbeaten in 21 Premier League matches away from home (W13 D8). In top-flight history, only Arsenal have had a longer away undefeated streak, going 23 without defeat between August 2001 and September 2002 and 27 without defeat between April 2003 and September 2004.

Solskjaer's United are looking to win three consecutive away games in all competitions against City for the first time since a run of four between November 1993 and November 2000.

This week, United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward said the club have made clear progress under Solskjaer in 2020-21, and the Norwegian responded on Friday.

Solskjaer – looking to become the first manager in United's history to win each of his first three away meetings with City in all competitions – added: "Of course, you want to win every game of football, you do. But if we compare to last season, we're quite a bit higher in the league compared to the same stage. We're still through in Europe and the FA Cup.

"It's probably the league that you think, 'yeah, that's where we've shown the progress'. Hopefully, we can prove in the Europa League and the FA Cup that we have taken another further step.

"This team, the ambitions are there, of course. We have more experience to be in this position, compared to last season. We're gelling more as a team, they're fitter but at the moment, we look short term and that's Sunday, to get back to creating chances, taking them and scoring goals again."

Pep Guardiola insists it makes "no sense" for players who will have to quarantine upon their return to the UK to go on international duty later this month – stating Manchester City will not release such players.

In light of on-going coronavirus travel restrictions, FIFA has made the unprecedented move of giving clubs the right to prevent players from joining up with their national teams if the fixtures in question mean a quarantine period of five days or more upon their return.

In the UK, anyone travelling to 'red list' countries must isolate for 10 days when they come back, with no exemptions granted for elite sportspeople.

The list features all of South America and parts of Africa. Portugal, the only European country on the list, have sought to mitigate the impact by moving their World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan on March 24 to Turin.

Although that seemingly frees up City trio Bernardo Silva, Joao Cancelo and Ruben Dias, Guardiola will be able to put his foot down when it comes to Argentina striker Sergio Aguero, Algeria winger Riyad Mahrez and Brazil contingent Ederson, Fernandinho and Gabriel Jesus.

"We didn't speak. We will wait until after this game against United and I am pretty sure that next week we'll talk about that," Guardiola told a news conference ahead of Sunday's Manchester derby.

"But I think it makes no sense if the players go to the national team and then have to isolate for 10 days when they come back. It makes no sense.

"We've worked incredibly hard for seven, eight or nine months and after the international break comes the real part of the season, and important players cannot play for 10 days? It makes no sense.

"They are not going to fly. That’s for sure. If they can fly, play with the national team and come straight back to training, they’ll fly.

"We invest a lot of time and money for the important part of the season and if six, seven, eight players cannot play with us, it makes no sense, honestly. No sense."

Guardiola's stance means the runaway Premier League leaders are aligned with the reigning champions after Jurgen Klopp also said Liverpool players from affected countries would not be released.

The City boss, who famously went against Barcelona's stance during his time as head coach and allowed Lionel Messi to win a gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games, insists he is not acting to devalue international football – just merely reacting to the realities of these times.

"We want to let them go to the national team. I know how important it is for them. I'd never say don't go to represent your country and to prepare for the European Cup or American Cup," he added.

"But it's no sense to do it and not play for 10 days, no training session, be at home, when we are playing for the league.

"If we go through, we will still be in the Champions League and we don't play with these players.

"They are not going to fly. I don't know what is going to happen but they are not going to fly, for sure.

"We've followed the protocols for eight, nine months. No restaurants, closed. The people are here - home, home, here, in the bubble, don't do it [break protocols], protect them, test them every two days.

"And after, in an important part of the season in the league, we don't have the players because the government has decided it is in a red zone and they cannot play when we are playing every three or four days?

"They are not going to fly, sure. I'm pretty sure that UEFA or FIFA will understand this argument."

Dean Henderson will start for Manchester United in Sunday's derby with City after David de Gea returned to Spain to attend the birth of his first child.

De Gea missed Wednesday's 0-0 draw at Crystal Palace, with manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer describing the reasons for his absence as "personal".

It became readily apparent just why De Gea had skipped the trip to Selhurst Park when, on Friday, he posted an image on social media to mark the birth of baby Yanay.

Solskjaer is confident Henderson is ready for the challenge that awaits him at the Etihad Stadium this weekend, with City unbeaten in 28 matches, having won 21 in a row.

"I will give David the time he needs before he comes back," said Solskjaer, whose side have a win percentage of 69 without De Gea from 13 games, compared to 52 from 29 with him in goal. 

"He wanted to go and be there, so there was not even a decision to make. Dean is ready, so we can give him the time he needs.

"As soon as David travels back we have to follow the rules, so I expect him to be ready very soon.

"We allowed him to go back and we want him back as soon as possible – but he is a human being. I don't know when he is back, but it won't be long."

United go into the fixture 14 points behind their rivals, having won only two of their previous eight Premier League matches.

It is a run that has left them vulnerable to slipping out of the top four, with fifth-placed Everton five points behind but boasting a game in hand.

However, Solskjaer is refusing to look beyond this weekend's match, as United seek to win a third consecutive game at City for the first time since 2000.

"Our focus is on this game, not where we are going to end up," said the Norwegian, who expects Paul Pogba to miss out but is more hopeful over Victor Lindelof and Anthony Martial.

"We want to be the best possible Man United and try to improve on last season, get to a final and win a trophy. They are ahead of us by a fair distance.

"I can only control what is happening at Man United, there are so many differences between the clubs.

"They are the only team ahead of us at the moment. It's a fantastic spell, with great form and 21 wins."

Despite United's recent wobble, with their previous three games have ended goalless, Solskjaer is not worried about a general loss of form.

"We have had a week without scoring a goal, not six weeks of bad form," he said, with United never having drawn 0-0 four times in a row.

"We beat Real Sociedad 4-0 and Southampton 9-0. The amount of games can have an effect.

"I am not buying into the narrative that we have had such a dip in form. We have defended well but we have lacked a little spark to score a goal."

The visitors have an outstanding away record to protect, having avoided defeat in their previous 21 trips on the road.

In top-flight history, only Arsenal have enjoyed a longer unbeaten run away from home (twice: 23 and 27).

Manchester City will be looking to set a new club record for games unbeaten in all competitions when they welcome rivals Manchester United to the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.

Pep Guardiola's men have gone 28 matches since last tasting defeat and have won the last 21 of those, including 15 wins from their last 15 in the Premier League.

The Manchester derby undoubtedly headlines this weekend's fixtures in the English top flight, but there are plenty of other intriguing games at both ends of the division.

Players from six different clubs feature among our Opta-fuelled fantasy picks for what could be a defining few days.

EDOUARD MENDY

Mendy was the busier of the two goalkeepers in Chelsea's goalless draw with Manchester United last weekend as he notched another clean sheet.

He now has six shutouts in his first 10 home Premier League starts, which is the most of any goalkeeper after that number of games in the competition since Alisson's seven for Liverpool at Anfield in 2018.

The only Chelsea keeper with a better return after their first 10 league starts at Stamford Bridge is Petr Cech with eight.


JOHN STONES

City may have conceded in three of their last four league games but their defence remains the strongest in the division, largely thanks to the form of a resurgent Stones.

The league leaders have conceded just four goals in the 1,440 minutes Stones has been on the field in the Premier League this term - one goal every 360 minutes.

That is the joint-best ratio among defenders with more than 300 minutes of involvement in the competition this season, level with Aston Villa's Kortney Hause (one goal conceded across his 360 minutes on the field).

LUKE SHAW

Left-back Shaw is continuing to enjoy his best season for Manchester United, even if the Red Devils are badly struggling for any sort of consistency.

The England international has four Premier League assists to his name in 2021 - more than any other defender - having set up goals for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Bruno Fernandes, Edinson Cavani and Scott McTominay.

He also leads the way this calendar year for chances created by defenders with 34.

 

PIERRE-EMERICK AUBAMEYANG

Arsenal skipper Aubameyang appears to be returning to his best form after scoring eight goals in his last 10 matches in all competitions.

The Gabon international may have fired a blank as a late substitute against Leicester City last time out, but he will fancy his chances of finding the net in Saturday's trip to Burnley.

That is because Aubameyang has scored seven goals in his six previous Premier League meetings with the Clarets, the most he has netted against any team in the competition.

 

SON HEUNG-MIN

Crystal Palace have recorded back-to-back clean sheets in the Premier League, but if they are to extend that run they will need to keep Son quiet in Sunday's showdown with Tottenham.

The South Korea international tends to enjoy playing against the Eagles, having scored five times and assisted once in seven top-flight starts in this head-to-head.

Son's five goals against Palace is bettered only by the eight he has managed against Southampton.

CHE ADAMS

Southampton's slump continued with defeat to Everton last time out and Ralph Hasenhuttl will know the importance of bringing an end to his side's nine-game winless streak in the league.

The stuttering Saints head to bottom side Sheffield United on Saturday and that could mean a return to scoring ways for out-of-form Adams, who has scored three goals in three appearances against his former employers.

The 24-year-old, who spent two full seasons at Bramall Lane earlier in his career, has not scored more than once again any other Premier League opponent.

 

OLLIE WATKINS

Watkins has gone four matches without scoring in the league, but the statistics suggest you should not lose faith in the Aston Villa striker just yet.

He has netted seven times at home in the Premier League this season - Christian Benteke, with 11 in 2012-13, was the last Villa player to score more in a single top-flight campaign.

The last English player to net more times at Villa Park in a Premier League season, meanwhile, was Darius Vassell in 2001-02 with eight goals.

Bruno Fernandes epitomises the quality Manchester United need to become "the most unstoppable team in the Premier League", according to Nani.

Fernandes has proven to be a stellar signing for United, the Portugal midfielder wowing with his performances since joining from Sporting CP just over a year ago.

He has 40 goal involvements – 23 goals and 17 assists – in 41 Premier League appearances ahead of Sunday's derby showdown with Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.

And Nani is delighted to see his compatriot shining at Old Trafford, with the ex-United and Sporting winger insisting Fernandes can help Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side overhaul City – if his team-mates can rise to his level.

"I'm so happy to see what he's been doing at Man United, because we had some conversations when we played together at Sporting and in one of the conversations it was to advise him to go to Man United instead of going to another Premier League team, and I'm so happy because we can see he has been performing fantastic," Nani told Stats Perform News.

"He has been a part of every goal of the team. He has been pushing the team to go get the results. When Bruno Fernandes doesn't appear, you have [Marcus] Rashford, you have other players, they have quality, but you don't see a player with the same attitude as him, with the same desire to go and make the same quality of passes.

"And if you don't have Bruno, it's very difficult to have another one. So in Man City, if Bernardo [Silva] is not there you have [Joao] Cancelo, if you don't have Canelo you have [Ilkay] Gundogan, you have many players who have more confidence and can make the same impact in the game.

"So at Man United you have players with so much power, maybe better than City I believe, much better than City, but they appear sometimes, and we want them to appear in these games.

"When they appear every time in these games, we will be the most unstoppable team in the Premier League. I'm so confident in that."

United will need to shrug off their recent malaise, which has seen them endure three goalless draws, with even Fernandes showing signs of fatigue in Wednesday's stalemate at Crystal Palace.

It was the 24th league match in which the 26-year-old completed 90 minutes for United but the first time he failed to attempt a shot at goal.

Fernandes' 15 top-flight goals this term have come at a rate of one every 153 minutes, with his total exceeding his xG (expected goals) of 11.89.

He compares favourably with City's man-of-the-moment Gundogan when it comes to creativity, with 10 assists to the German's one. Furthermore, Fernandes has an average of three chances created per 90 minutes, while Gundogan has 1.6.

It is nonetheless a huge task that faces United this weekend, with City unbeaten in 28 games in all competition – one shy of a club record.

Gianluigi Donnarumma is attracting interest from across Europe.

Donnarumma's Milan contract expires at season's end and the star goalkeeper is yet to commit.

Premier League giants Chelsea are reportedly ready to prise the Italy international to London.

 

TOP STORY – CHELSEA LAUNCH DONNARUMMA BID

Chelsea are ready to make a move for Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, according to Libero Quotidiano.

Donnarumma's contract expires at the end of the season and Premier League giants Chelsea are set to submit an offer worth £9million (€10.5m) per season, despite already boasting the world's most expensive goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and Edouard Mendy.

The Italy international has also been linked with the likes of Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus.

 

ROUND-UP

- Sky reports teenage sensation Jamal Musiala has signed a long-term contract extension with Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich. The new deal is reportedly worth €5m per year and will tie him to Bayern until 2026.

Manchester City have joined the race for Atalanta star Robin Gosens, according to Virgilio. Gosens has had interest from Serie A rivals Inter and Juventus but Atalanta are understood to want €40m (£34m) for his services.

- The Daily Mail says Leicester City are planning for Jamie Vardy's long-term replacement by targeting a £15m move for Celtic forward Odsonne Edouard.

- Santiago Arias is being circled by EvertonRoma and PSG this off-season, according to Kicker. Arias is currently on loan at Bayer Leverkusen from Atletico Madrid.

- InterLive claims Inter are keen on Juve goalkeeper Mattia Perin, who is currently on loan at Genoa, and may use Matias Vecino in exchange. The Nerazzurri are looking for goalkeeper cover for Samir Handanovic.

Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward lauded the "progress" made by the side under manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season.

Speaking as the club's latest quarterly financial results were announced, Woodward said United have made progress, both on-field and commercially over the past 12 months amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Woodward highlighted the work of Solskjaer, whose side are second in the Premier League, 14 points adrift of runaway leaders and neighbours Manchester United.

United registered their sixth goalless Premier League draw of the season – the club's joint-most ever in a campaign, along with 2004-05 and 2016-17 - following Wednesday's disappointing 0-0 stalemate at Crystal Palace.

The Premier League giants have also drawn three consecutive matches 0-0 in all competitions for the first time since October 2015 under Louis van Gaal.

"The progress made by Ole and the players this season is clear and our thriving Academy and Women's team are also adding to the optimism we feel about the future on and off the pitch," Woodward said.

United – without a Premier League title since 2012-13 – are also into the FA Cup quarter-finals and the Europa League last 16 this season, while they reached the EFL Cup semi-finals.

The Red Devils exited the Champions League in the group stage after a bright start in a tough group including last season's runners-up Paris Saint-Germain and 2019-20 semi-finalists RB Leipzig, but eased past Real Sociedad last week in the Europa League last 32.

Domestically, United are the fifth top-flight team to remain unbeaten in their first 14 away top-flight matches in a season (W8 D6), after Leeds United in 1973-74, Liverpool in 1987-88 and Arsenal in both 2001-02 and 2003-04.

United's unbeaten away run in the league extends back 21 matches until the 2-0 loss to eventual champions Liverpool in January 2020.

Solskjaer took over as United manager on a caretaker basis in December 2018 following Jose Mourinho's dismissal, winning the job permanently in March 2019 on a three-year deal.

The Norwegian has less than 18 months remaining on that contract but revealed last month has not yet opened discussions with the club about an extension.

Meanwhile on United's commercial progress, Woodward added: "While the disruption to our operations remains significant, we are pleased by the tremendous resilience the club has demonstrated through the pandemic, underpinned by the dedication of our people and the strength of our commercial business.

"We have been reminded of the importance of football as a source of community, entertainment and pride to fans around the world, even as we have sorely missed them at Old Trafford."

Nani thinks Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is right to keep moving Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial around the Manchester United forward line.

Rashford and Martial - along with Mason Greenwood - led United's attack to huge success towards the end of last season.

Veteran Edinson Cavani has entered the fold this year amid debate over which of United's younger forwards will become the next number nine.

Nani, who was a Champions League winner with United, thinks the modern player can move positions regularly much more easily, even if it is not always ideal.

He thinks Solskjaer is following the methods of Alex Ferguson in selecting teams with the weaknesses of United's opponents in mind.

Nani told Stats Perform News: "We saw so many games they played together and they were successful, so yeah [Martial and Rashford can play in the same team].

"Sometimes when you change positions, game to game it can cause a little bit of impact from your game. 

"But yet this is something you have to train and prepare on every week with a coach and you have to be able to understand the game.

"You have to know what the purpose of the session was and what the manager wants for that game. 

"I think now the capacity of the players, the new generation, they are able to play in different positions at the front. 

"So Rashford can shoot with the left, with the right - he has skills, there is no problem for him to play in different positions. 

"I think that the manager is doing great because he's reading the next game. 

"So there are some games you can better use Martial central, and some you can use him better on the left wing and that's what I've been seeing the coach doing. 


"And it's true when I used to play for Man United, Alex Ferguson was reading the opponent. 

"So who is going to play on the right side? Who is better to challenge him is he slow? Do we need a player with more speed or more strength? It depends on what the game needs."

United have drawn three consecutive games 0-0 for the first time since October 2015.

While he is impressed with Rashford in general this season, Nani has highlighted an area for potential improvement that could get United out of their slump.

"Age gives you more experience, the more you see, you learn more with the more games you get," added Nani when he was asked about Rashford.

"But we know what he is capable of - he has energy, he has skills, he has goals [but] sometimes he just [needs] the desire to want to be more involved in the game.

"[He needs to] want the ball more, want to run more will his all, lose more energy in the game, instead of saving himself to the end because trying to save the energy to end up the game, sometimes you lose opportunity to make your goal or your assist when the result is already done.

"So I think he can use his strength more during the game, it will make much more difference to his game."

Martial, meanwhile, has struggled to follow up his strong 2019-20 season, when he racked up a career-high 17 Premier League goals.

The France international, who is facing a race against time to be fit in time to face Manchester City in Sunday's derby, has four goals and three assists from 21 league appearances this time around.

Nani feels a return to form is needed quickly, adding: "You know Martial has shown already he has so much potential.

"He has goals, he is strong, he is fast, he has skills. He is a player who has shown he can do much more, so we are used to seeing much more.

"At this moment he is not at his best. He can produce much more for the team. 

"I don't know what happened with the player, probably he had some injuries or he is not so confident as before. 

"But he needs to get back to his best as quickly as possible because the team need him. 

"And he needs to start scoring his goals and perform the way he used to play because he will help the team a lot."

While their struggles in front of goal have been a problem – and a sixth 0-0 draw tied their club record for a Premier League season - the Palace draw did see United hit a notable landmark.

They are the first team since Arsenal's 'Invincibles' of 2003-04 to remain unbeaten for their first 14 away games of a top-flight campaign.

Bruno Fernandes being hailed as the signing who turned around Manchester United's fortunes would have been difficult for Paul Pogba to take, according to Nani.

Fernandes has received rave reviews for his incredible performances since arriving at Old Trafford from Sporting CP just over a year ago.

The attacking midfielder has recorded 40 goal involvements – 23 goals and 17 assists – in 41 Premier League appearances, leading him to be touted as the player who can lead United back to the top.

Former United winger Nani, a four-time Premier League winner, thinks every United squad member would have had to take stock after Fernandes' stunning impact.

And adapting would have been particularly tough for Pogba, who was previously established as the star man.

Nani feels Pogba and the rest of the United players have adjusted well over the past year to increasingly incorporate Fernandes' individual brilliance into better team performances and results.

But he believes the connection between World Cup winner Pogba and Portugal international Fernandes must get stronger still.

Nani told Stats Perform News: "There are different [types of] players on the field - you have Bruno Fernandes, a smarter attacking player, and Pogba who can do a little bit of both [attacking and defending].

"Pogba can handle the game a bit for Bruno to go a little bit up [the pitch]. They have to try to have the connection. 

"It is not easy, when you [Pogba] are the player for the club, the midfield star, and another player arrives to the team and starts performing so well.

"And then [it is not easy] that everyone starts talking just about the player and, 'He made the team change, he made everything'. 

"All of that could have a little bit of an impact in every head on the team. 

"But what I see in the last games, the players adjust to that. They have confirmed [in ther minds] a little bit what Bruno can give to the team.

"And Bruno is part of the team so now they look like more of a strong team. 

"So I'm very confident about the next games until the end of the season. I think there will be a surprise to the end of the season because they are still in the Europa League. Let's see."

Pogba has just over one year left on his current contract and agent Mino Raiola said in December his client wanted to leave United.

While Raiola later backtracked somewhat during the January transfer window, he insisted he would still push for a transfer at the end of the season, though the club have talked about a new deal.

Nani was asked whether Pogba's continued presence in the headlines meant he had become a distraction for United.

"At this moment, I see him as one of the important players at Man United," Nani said about Pogba.

"But I don't know what he has on his mind, if he wants to leave or if all this news is making some problems in his head.

"I don't know if he has full concentration on the team, on the games, on the goals of the team. 

"I saw him when he was struggling with some injuries and then he came back and started playing, he was improving his performance. He was doing well. 

"He was helping the team, but we know Pogba can do much better, he can do much more because he is a top player in this position. He's not using all his strength, all his qualities. 

"But if he wants to stay at the club, for sure he will perform much better very soon. He needs to continue to improve his game, his confidence and try to help the team in the way he can."

Pogba has been out of action for a month since suffering a thigh injury in the dramatic 3-3 draw with Everton.

While United are unbeaten in seven games without him, four of those contests have been draws, including Wednesday's goalless encounter at Crystal Palace.

That was their sixth goalless Premier League draw of the season, their joint-most ever in a season, along with 2004-05 and 2016-17.

It is also the first time United have drawn three consecutive matches 0-0 in all competitions since October 2015, when they were playing under Louis van Gaal.

Manchester United became the best "school" in Nani's life once he learned how to work with Alex Ferguson – but crossing that bridge was not easy for the former Portugal star.

Nani's United career was a curious one, for he constantly had to contend with comparisons to compatriot and fellow Sporting CP product Cristiano Ronaldo, and that seemingly impacted fan expectations of him at the start.

His first season had some memorable highs, as he highlighted his penchant for a spectacular goal or two with long-range strikes against Middlesbrough and Tottenham, while also helping United to a Premier League and Champions League double, scoring in the penalty shootout that secured European glory.

Yet, despite his 12 Premier League goal involvements that term, Nani was regularly decried for a lack of consistency in his performances – a talented winger who seemed to frustrate as much as he did delight, with a man-of-the-match display in a 4-0 FA Cup win over Arsenal in February 2008 evidence of the devastating ability that perhaps was not shown enough.

After playing only 13 games – partly due to injuries – in his second domestic season, some fans might have expected United to cut their losses with Nani, but the penny seemed to drop, as he had a hand in 10 goals (six assists and four goals) in 23 appearances in the subsequent campaign and that proved the launchpad he needed.

Nani's best individual season followed in 2010-11 as he claimed 14 assists and nine goals to earn himself a place in the Professional Footballers' Association's (PFA) Team of the Year and win United's Players' Player of the Season award. The key for him? Finally understanding what made Ferguson tick.

Speaking to Stats Perform News, Nani said of his time working with Ferguson: "I think the best moment is all the trophies we won together, because I think when you play for a coach like that, the way he managed the team and always continued to win, we are privileged, no?

"But obviously, I learned to understand how to work with Alex Ferguson, because at the beginning, I was not understanding very well, because I was too emotional.

"My background, you know, you need some lessons of life, and I was learning so fast with all my team-mates and the coaches helping in that way, and I was happy at the end because they made me mature so fast.

"I learned how to play the game with them and how to behave in a big club like Man United, and that's why today when I look back, I have so great memories.

"That was my best school in all my life because what I learned from the time I had, seven years in Man United, they gave me today the capacity to be who I am and to understand things the way I understand them."

Across his time in the Premier League, only five players made more assists than Nani (43), though that figure may have been even more impressive were he not restricted by injuries to just 11 league games each in Ferguson's final season and David Moyes' solitary campaign.

Louis van Gaal subsequently decided his time at Old Trafford was up, but Nani looks back fondly on his time in Manchester, and particularly under Ferguson, whom he shared a touching moment with as he walked down the steps of the Stade de France having helped Portugal to Euro 2016 glory.

"Nani!" came the shout from Ferguson.

"Boss!" replied a visibly shocked but joyous Nani, still seeing the Scot as a person of authority despite being out of the game for three years at this point. The pair hugged and exchanged a few words before Ferguson sent his former player on his way.

And it was this personable character – rather than the authoritative figure Ferguson is often perceived to be – that Nani remembers most, yet still took some time to get used to.

"I understood that he would always like the players to go and talk with him," Nani said. "But he appreciated more when the players opened up to him and were honest, and told him whatever the truth was or whatever you needed.

"If you had any problem, he would like to have this opportunity to hear from the players, and as soon as you do that one or two times, you are more confident to talk with him, and then you feel you closer to the manager.

"You understand and you feel like, 'Oh, now he understands me, it doesn't matter if I'm happy or not'.

"So, I knew I could count on him if I needed to talk or if I needed anything, or if I wasn't in good shape or good form, it doesn't matter because he sees me as part of the team."

Now 34 and in MLS with Orlando City as he approaches the end of an illustrious career, Nani may feel he could have achieved even more on a personal level at United.

But being shaped by a man as revered as Ferguson is a claim to fame in itself.

Erling Haaland continues to dominate headlines.

The Borussia Dortmund sensation is one of the most sought-after players in Europe.

Manchester City and Real Madrid are reportedly going head-to-head to sign the Norwegian.

 

TOP STORY – AGUERO OUT, HAALAND IN?

Manchester City want to sign Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland as a replacement for veteran forward Sergio Aguero, according to Bild.

Aguero, who has been hampered by injury this season, is out of contract at the end of the current campaign.

Haaland is a player in demand, having been linked to Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich.

But Haaland dominates the front pages of Thursday's Marca, Diario AS and Mundo Deportivo in Spain amid Madrid's interest.

The Norway international reportedly wants to listen to Madrid, who will need €150million to prise Haaland to the Santiago Bernabeu.

 

ROUND-UP

- Calciomercato reports Lyon star Houssem Aouar remains on the radar of Juventus. Aouar has previously been linked with the Serie A champions, as well as Arsenal.

Chelsea are interested in Monaco's defensive midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni, claims ESPN.

- O Jogo says Liverpool could reignite their interest in Sporting CP defender Nuno Mendes. Juve, Madrid and Milan have also been tracking the 18-year-old, who has a £60m (€70m) release clause.

Edinson Cavani is open to extending his United contract, according to Fabrizio Romano. Cavani joined United as a free agent on a one-year deal at the start of the season. The former PSG star has been linked with Boca Juniors.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is weighing up whether to block Manchester United star Bruno Fernandes from travelling with Portugal during the international break due to COVID-19 quarantine.

Portugal are scheduled to play three World Cup qualifiers this month – at home to Azerbaijan (March 24), away to Serbia (March 27) and on the road against Luxembourg (March 30).

Linking up with Portugal would mean Fernandes would be subject to a 10-day quarantine in a government-approved hotel upon his return to the United Kingdom amid the coronavirus pandemic.

It would also leave Solskjaer without the services of Fernandes against Brighton and Hove Albion (April 3) and Tottenham (April 10).

Asked about the situation following Wednesday's goalless draw away to Crystal Palace, United manager Solskjaer told reporters: "We have not sat down and made a proper call on that one but it doesn't make sense if you lose your player for 10 days' isolation.

"We are the ones paying the players, from what I understand, that [being allowed to ban players travelling] is the rule. 

"FIFA have given the rule that they don't have to be released, so it is going to be a hard call to make to let them play in red-list countries.

"I want Bruno ready for Brighton and hopefully we will be through in Europe and against Tottenham after that break, of course I do."

United were held to their third successive scoreless draw across all competitions after firing another blank against Palace midweek.

Solskjaer's faltering United produced another toothless display at Selhurst Park, where the Red Devils slipped 14 points adrift of runaway leaders Manchester City ahead of Sunday's derby.

United registered their sixth goalless Premier League draw of the season – the club's joint-most ever in a campaign, along with 2004-05 and 2016-17.

The Premier League giants have also drawn three consecutive matches 0-0 in all competitions for the first time since October 2015 under Louis van Gaal.

"Of course we're not happy when you don't create chances enough to win a game," Solskjaer said. "Of course, it's been a week with no goals, and sometimes three games sounds a lot without scoring.

"It was not considered either but a week in a season like this sometimes is... yeah, you just don't hit the form that you normally had, that you have had for many, many months, so it's a bit of a worry. Of course it is.

"But, I know that the boys are given everything. And that's the thing with we play every three days, and I know they given everything they've got so attitude and approach I'm very happy with the quality. We need to get back to what we know we can do."

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