Manchester City will be looking to stretch their record winning run to 20 matches when they welcome fellow in-form side West Ham to the Etihad Stadium in the Premier League this weekend.

Pep Guardiola's men are 10 points clear at the summit and two of their players feature among our Opta-fuelled fantasy picks, along with a couple of Everton men on the back of last week's long-awaited derby win at Liverpool.

Manchester United, Tottenham and Leicester City players are also selected ahead of games against Chelsea, Burnley and Arsenal respectively.

 

EDERSON

There are many factors behind the leaders' winning run - not least an incredible defensive record, with goalkeeper Ederson more than playing his part.

The Brazil international has kept 15 clean sheets from 24 Premier League games this term, averaging one every 1.6 matches.

Only two keepers to have played at least 10 times have averaged fewer games per clean sheet across an entire season - Chelsea's Petr Cech (24 in 35 apps in 2004-05) and former Manchester United stopper Edwin van der Sar (21 in 33 apps in 2008-09).

JOAO CANCELO

Simply keeping out the opposition is not enough in the life of a modern day full-back, best epitomised by Cancelo at Man City.

On top of helping City to that formidable defensive record, he has also created the most chances (34) from open play among fellow Premier League defenders this season.

Cancelo may only have set up two goals in the top flight this season, but he has the highest number of expected assists (4.28) among defenders, just ahead of Manchester United's Luke Shaw (4.04).

 

LUCAS DIGNE

Carlo Ancelotti was delighted with the news Digne had signed a new long-term deal with Everton this week and little wonder given the full-back's impact on the side.

No Premier League defender has more assists than the 27-year-old's six this season - level with West Ham's Aaron Cresswell and one more than Andy Robertson and Shaw.

Since Digne's debut for Everton in August 2018, only Liverpool pair Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold (28) have assisted more goals than the Frenchman (17).

GYLFI SIGURDSSON

There was a point when Sigurdsson's time at Everton appeared to be up not so long ago, but the creative midfielder has more than proved his worth to the side of late.

He was been involved in six Premier League goals in 23 appearances this term - four goals and two assists - which is one more than he managed in 35 games last season.

That is a tally he will be confident of building on this gameweek, as the Iceland international has only scored more Premier League goals against Chelsea (six) than he has versus opponents Southampton (five).

 

MARCUS RASHFORD

In the week he celebrates the five-year anniversary since scoring twice on his United debut, Rashford takes on his favourite opponents in Chelsea.

The United academy product has scored five times against the Blues in all competitions and registered a couple of assists.

Only against Leicester City has he found the net as many times, while only against Newcastle United and West Ham (both seven) has he been directly involved in more goals.

HARRY KANE

If Rashford enjoys playing against Chelsea, the same is true of Kane against Tottenham's next opponents Burnley.

The England skipper has been directly involved in 10 goals in nine Premier League appearances against the Clarets, finding the net seven times and laying on three assists.

Burnley's defenders will not look forward to coming up against Kane, with Riyad Mahrez the only player to score against them more often (eight times) in their Premier League history.

 

JAMIE VARDY

Vardy's scoring record against the division's traditional top four is well known by now, particularly when it comes to facing Arsenal.

The Leicester striker has scored 11 goals in 12 previous Premier League appearances against the Gunners, including a late winner in the reverse fixture.

Those 11 strikes place Vardy behind only Wayne Rooney for goals scored against Arsenal in the competition, the United legend netting 12 times against the London club in his career.

Jose Mourinho lavished praise on Tottenham youngster Dane Scarlett following an impressive Europa League cameo, likening him to Manchester United star Marcus Rashford.

The 16-year-old made his fourth senior appearance for the club on Wednesday, coming off the bench for the final 10 minutes a 4-0 win over Wolfsberger.

And he made a telling impact almost immediately, hustling a defender out of possession to set up Carlos Vinicius for the hosts' fourth goal.

Mourinho could barely contain his delight at the rapid progress of a player whose quality reminds him of another major talent he once helped develop.

"He is a diamond, a kid with incredible potential," the Portuguese told BT Sport.

"He has worked many times with the first team and that gives him a different personality. He is still 16, 17 soon [in March] and I believe next season he will be a first-team squad player because he has a lot of talent.

"He is going to be a fantastic player and I hope everything around him goes well. He is a striker, a number nine, I have been playing him from the sides similar to Marcus Rashford and he is very clever.”

Mourinho praised Scarlett even further in his post-match media conference, revealing the teenager is already splitting his time between the senior squad and Under-23s.

"Dane has incredible talent. I don't want to speak too much because tomorrow I arrive in the building and the kid's boss is going to kill me," he added.

"I don't want that so I don't want to speak too well about him. I just want to say that he will be 17 next month and I want him to be part of the first-team squad next season.

"So this season he is there and here, goes to training sessions with us and matches with the kids of his age and trains there.

"Next season he has to be a first-team player. Immense talent. Very good physical development.

"He's very good, he's going to be very good. I hope that nothing is going to destroy that potential. He must have feet on the ground and head on his shoulders because he has a fantastic talent."

Thursday marks exactly five years since Marcus Rashford exploded onto the scene for Manchester United.

Having been fast-tracked into the first-team squad due to injuries, the then-18-year-old was handed a surprise start against Midtjylland in the Europa League after Anthony Martial was injured in the warm-up.

Rashford responded with two goals in a 5-1 win, both in front of the Stretford End, in a game neither he nor fans have forgotten.

On February 25, 2021, Rashford could well be afforded a rest when United host Real Sociedad at Old Trafford, having scored in the 4-0 first-leg win to put Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side in control of the tie.

The importance of saving Rashford for major games to come is a sign of his status within the squad after five years, three different permanent managers and a single-minded development into an elite forward in the making.

FORMIDABLE

Rashford has played 253 times in all competitions for United, starting 181 of those games. Nobody has played as many for the club since his debut, with David de Gea next on 227 appearances.

The 23-year-old has scored 85 goals – as many as David Beckham managed in his Red Devils career – and provided 38 assists. Again, that's the most of any player in the past five years, with Martial next on 68 goals and 36 assists.

Rashford averages a goal every 198 minutes across his United career, with the vast majority (70) coming from his right foot. Although 75 of his goals have been scored from inside the box, he has scored more often from outside the penalty area (10 times) than he has from the spot itself (nine).

After scoring eight goals in his debut season in 2015-16, Rashford has consistently built on his numbers, with 11, 13 and 13 registered in the following three seasons. Last term was undoubtedly his best, with 22 goals and eight assists in 44 appearances, and he is on target to beat that in 2020-21, having already scored 18 and set up a further nine.

FAVOURITES

Rashford might be happy to be facing Chelsea on Sunday. He has scored five times against the Blues in 12 games, making them his favourite opponents alongside Leicester City (five goals in 11 games).

Rarely one to shy away from the big occasion, Rashford has scored four times against Liverpool and Manchester City, and three against Paris Saint-Germain, RB Leipzig and Tottenham.

His favourite supporting act is Juan Mata, who has provided the most assists (seven) for Rashford goals, ahead of Martial (six). Perhaps in a sign of United's greater attacking endeavours under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, three of the players to assist Rashford the most (Daniel James and Mason Greenwood with four, and Bruno Fernandes with five) have all made their debuts since the start of last season.

HALL OF FAME

Rashford has been directly involved in 80 goals (53 scored, 27 assisted) in his 167 Premier League appearances to date. That's a better return than David Beckham (77), Ryan Giggs (75) and Paul Scholes (64) managed in their first 167 games in the competition.

He is a little way behind Cristiano Ronaldo, who managed 98 combined goals and assists in his first 167 games in England's top flight, while Rashford's manager Solskjaer recorded 106 goal involvements in those first 167 outings, just behind Andrew Cole (108) and Wayne Rooney (111).

Interestingly, Martial managed more (81) in just his first 165 Premier League appearances. Similarly, Ruud van Nistelrooy needed just 150 Premier League games to provide 109 direct goal involvements, while the great Eric Cantona reached 115 in just 143 games.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has encouraged Marcus Rashford to follow the example of Cristiano Ronaldo in order to make the most of his Manchester United career. 

February 25 marks five years since the forward's memorable debut for the Red Devils, when he scored twice in a 5-1 Europa League defeat of Midtjylland at Old Trafford. 

Having been drafted hastily into Louis van Gaal's first-team squad due to injuries and then thrust into the starting line-up when Anthony Martial was hurt in the warm-up, Rashford, then 18, struck twice in 12 minutes to help his side progress. 

Rashford has since developed into a key part of United and England's plans, with 85 goals and 38 assists in 253 games in all competitions at club level, plus 11 goals in 40 appearances for the national team. 

His strike in the 3-1 win over Newcastle United last Sunday drew him level with David Beckham for United goals, just 33 behind Ronaldo. 

Manager Solskjaer hopes Rashford takes inspiration from the five-time Ballon d'Or winner, who leads the goalscoring charts in Serie A this season after turning 36 three weeks ago. 

Speaking ahead of Thursday's Europa League last-32 second leg against Real Sociedad, Solskjaer said: "He's had an incredible impact on and off the pitch. He's matured, grown into a real proper young man.

"He knows what it takes to be a Manchester United player on and off the pitch, he's taken responsibility on it and off it. I do remember [his debut]: a young little lad coming on, two nice goals, celebration with his team-mates in the stand and I think he's living proof of what we want to do at the club. 

"When you sign for Man United, whether you're five, six, 10, 14, you have a chance to make dreams come true and long may it continue, he's got 10-15 years left in him. 

"You have to be meticulous to last for a long career. We've had the best possible example of that in world football with Cristiano. The way he has looked after himself, the way he came into the club and we all took notice the way he developed throughout his career and the way he looked after himself is major. 

"I'm sure Marcus as well is looking after himself. That's the only way to be at the top: you can't get distracted and if you play until you're 35 you can do whatever you want after that." 

Rashford scored in United's commanding first-leg victory in Turin, a result that puts them in a strong position to progress to the last 16. 

With Edinson Cavani, Paul Pogba, Scott McTominay and Donny van de Beek sidelined and a Premier League game at Chelsea to come on Sunday, Solskjaer could well hand opportunities to youngsters such as Shola Shoretire and Amad Diallo, although Hannibal Mejbri will miss out through injury.

"Amad and Shola will be involved, they're in the squad and I'm not going to tell you if they're starting or not," he said.

"I believe in the youth, I believe if young players, if they get a chance, they can really develop, improve, impress, even surprise you and that's just part of this club and it's part of me.

"I've always loved working with young players and hungry players with a good attitude. If you've got a good attitude, you've got a good chance; if you don't, then there's less of a chance."

Bruno Fernandes scored twice as Manchester United beat Real Sociedad 4-0 in the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie.

Fernandes took his tally to 33 goals in all competitions for the Red Devils to put Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men in charge inside the first hour.

The LaLiga side had posed a threat at the Allianz Stadium in Turin, where the match was being held due to coronavirus travel restrictions, but Marcus Rashford and Daniel James struck before Amad Diallo was granted his debut late on, meaning United go into next week's return leg in a commanding position.

Former United man Adnan Januzaj curled a shot just wide of the right-hand post and Dean Henderson had to save smartly from Alexander Isak, those chances coming either side of a wasted Rashford opportunity in a thrilling opening three minutes.

Scott McTominay, who had scored three goals in United's previous four games, was denied another by the leg of Alex Remiro after driving into the box from Fernandes' pass.

Rashford then missed another glorious opportunity, firing straight at Remiro after Alex Telles' throughball to Fernandes split the Sociedad defence.

However, he turned provider in the 26th minute. This time, Remiro made a mess of things coming off his line to clear Rashford's pass and clattered into his defenders, giving Fernandes a simple finish.

La Real applied some pressure early in the second half but United doubled their lead on the break. Fernandes let Rashford's pass run to Daniel James and then swept a first-time finish past Remiro, with VAR overturning an initial offside call.

Januzaj continued to threaten against his old club, beating Fernandes and playing in a dangerous cross that Nemanja Matic cleared, but Rashford made no mistake with the third of his chances to kill off the game, slotting past Remiro after Fred's pass cut through the defence.

James had a goal disallowed for a marginal offside and fired another effort straight at Remiro, but he made no mistake with his next chance, charging into the box and squeezing a shot through the keeper's legs.

What does it mean? United end Spanish hoodoo to take charge of tie

United had gone nine games without a win against Spanish sides in Europe stretching back to a 1-0 semi-final first-leg victory over Celta Vigo en route to winning this trophy in 2016-17.

This was a welcome result against a strong side that saw United find something of their attacking groove again and take control of the last-32 tie.

They have been inconsistent at home this season, but they will be firm favourites to progress next week at Old Trafford.

Bruno is frankly brilliant

Fernandes has been involved in 53 goals in 58 games for United in all competitions, which is 10 more than any other Premier League player has managed since his debut last February.

Imanol Alguacil's set-up afforded him lots of space to exploit but, unlike some of his team-mates, Fernandes almost always applies a clinical touch.

United can still sharpen up in attack

This proved a comfortable win but, in truth, United should have had many more. Rashford missed two sitters in the first half, James missed an easier chance than the one he converted, and Greenwood dragged a good opening wide.

Should they progress to the latter stages, they will want to avoid a repeat of last year's semi-final exit when Sevilla punished their lack of ruthlessness. This was an encouraging step towards correcting that problem.

What's next?

Before next Thursday's second leg, United are at home to Newcastle United in the Premier League on Sunday, with Sociedad hosting Deportivo Alaves in LaLiga.

Manchester City are five points clear at the top of the Premier League after their demolition of defending champions Liverpool last time out.

With Guardiola getting the better of one managerial rival already this term in Jurgen Klopp, City's focus now switches to a clash with Jose Mourinho's Tottenham.

Key to City's superb form has been Ilkay Gundogan, who has scored nine goals this season in the league, three more than his previous best of six from 2018-19.

Given he scored twice at Anfield – while also missing a penalty – it would seem a smart decision for fantasy football managers to back Gundogan again this weekend, though which other players should make the cut?

ROBERT SANCHEZ

Another team in fine form as of late have been Brighton and Hove Albion, who have conceded just one goal in their last five top-flight matches, with goalkeeper Robert Sanchez certainly playing his part.

Sanchez ousted Mat Ryan – now on loan at Arsenal – as first choice earlier in the season, and of all goalkeepers to have played at least 10 Premier League games this season, only Ederson (one every 145 minutes) and Edouard Mendy (114 minutes) have a better minutes-per-goal conceded rate than Sanchez (one every 98 minutes). He has played 12 times, conceding 11 goals.

MATT TARGETT

Going up against Brighton this weekend are Aston Villa, and one defender to look out for could be Matt Targett.

Brighton have not scored more than once in a league match since a 3-3 draw with Wolves on January 2, and Villa left-back Targett has been involved in 11 clean sheets this season – more than any other Premier League defender apart from Ruben Dias.

AARON CRESSWELL

If you are looking for a more attacking option, however, then that player may well be West Ham's Aaron Cresswell.

The full-back has registered five league assists this season, second to only Everton's Lucas Digne (six) in terms of defenders, while only Liverpool's Andrew Robertson (38) and Manchester United's Luke Shaw (36) can better his tally of 34 chances created by a defender.

ILKAY GUNDOGAN

In Kevin De Bruyne's absence, Gundogan has come to the fore for Guardiola's team, and the former Borussia Dortmund man is the highest scorer in the Premier League so far in 2021 with seven goals in eight games.

The German's previous seven goals in the competition came over a period of 62 games, dating back to 2018.

JACK GREALISH

With Brighton's Sanchez in such fine form for Brighton, it could be a tough decision for fantasy managers, especially with Jack Grealish being so prominent in Villa's attack.

Grealish, arguably the league's player of the season so far, has been directly involved in five goals in his last five appearances against Brighton in all competitions (four goals, one assist), scoring in his last two games at the Amex.

PATRICK BAMFORD

Leeds United returned to winning ways as they saw off Crystal Palace 2-0 on Monday, with a trip to Arsenal up next on Sunday.

Patrick Bamford scored Leeds' second at Elland Road against Palace, and he has been involved in five goals in his last three Premier League games, netting twice and providing three assists. Eight of his 12 Premier League goals this season have been away from home (67 per cent).

MARCUS RASHFORD

Another forward who has thrived on the road in 2020-21 is Manchester United star Marcus Rashford.

He has netted eight times in the Premier League this season, with six of those goals – 75 per cent – having come away from Old Trafford. The England international has never scored more in a single campaign on the road.

The Premier League has launched its No Room For Racism Action Plan, as a number of players continue to be subjected to racial abuse.

While the competition has previously had to deal with incidents of racism from certain sections of supporters at matches, players are also now being targeted with abuse online.

In the past 10 days, both Manchester United and Chelsea have condemned incidents of racism on social media, with England internationals Marcus Rashford and Reece James among those targeted.

The Rashford attacks came just days after his team-mates Anthony Martial and Axel Tuanzebe were also abused, with United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer calling on social media platforms to do more to prevent the "unacceptable behaviour"

Since the competition resumed in June last year following a coronavirus-enforced suspension, players, managers, coaching staff and match officials have all taken a knee prior to kick-off in every Premier League game in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign.

The league has now taken another step to tackle the problem, introducing the No Room For Racism Action Plan.

The proposals have been given unanimous support by the 20 Premier League clubs at last week's shareholders' meeting, and has six key commitments.

These include committing to increased diversity in leadership positions in all areas, with the Premier League setting itself a target of having 18 per cent of staff from a black, Asian or ethnic minority background by 2026, while also having 42 per cent of roles filled by women by the same year.

In coaching, the league will aim to develop more black, Asian, ethnic minority and female coaches, while it will work to ensure that every player has the opportunity to achieve their potential at Premier League academies and in their future careers, whether in football or elsewhere, regardless of ethnicity or background.

"Football is a diverse sport, which brings together communities and cultures from all backgrounds," Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said in a statement.

"This diversity has made the game stronger on the pitch and it is vital we ensure this is reflected across all areas of the game.

"There is no place for racism in our sport and the Premier League will continue to take action against all forms of discrimination so that football is inclusive and welcoming for all."

Manchester United's forwards have their "mojo" back after leading Tuesday's remarkable 9-0 demolition of nine-man Southampton at Old Trafford.

It was only the third instance of a team winning a Premier League match by nine goals and the first time United have won by that margin since March 1995, when they beat Ipswich Town by the same score.

While Andy Cole was the five-goal inspiration in that 1995 win, this time United shared the goals around – seven players netted on Tuesday, making it only the second occasion so many different individuals have netted for the same team in a single Premier League match.

Among them were Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani, providing the perfect response to Solskjaer's pre-match comments maligning the loss of his forwards' "mojo".

"Yeah, of course they have," Solskjaer said with a laugh to BT Sport when asked if they had recovered that "mojo".

"You get lots of confidence from a performance like this and the result, scoring goals is always good for forwards and the team."

He added: "We have been waiting for them to show their magic and tonight was a night they could go and enjoy.

"We haven't had too many of those where you can sit down in the second half and enjoy the football, so they enjoyed it. There were some good performances."

Alexandre Jankewitz's red card for a shocking second-minute tackle on Scott McTominay – who was also among the scorers – left Saints with an uphill battle, and Jan Bednarek followed him down the tunnel in the second half in rather more controversial circumstances.

But the focus will be on United's scoring prowess in the contest, as they put Saints to the sword.

Rashford's goal saw him move on to 83 for the club, overtaking Eric Cantona, and Solskjaer took the moment to praise the England international as he has occasionally had to contend with critics urging him to concentrate on his football amid his charitable efforts during the coronavirus pandemic.

"That's not bad," Solskjaer said of Rashford surpassing Cantona. "Eric was a fantastic player to play with and Marcus has a great career ahead of him.

"What he's done this season, this year, it just shows he can still focus on his football as well."

Manchester United got back to winning ways in the Premier League by obliterating nine-man Southampton 9-0 at Old Trafford on Tuesday. 

After following a shock home loss to Sheffield United with a goalless draw at Arsenal, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side responded in record-equalling style after young Alex Jankewitz had been sent off within two minutes of kick-off. 

Aaron Wan-Bissaka opened the scoring before Marcus Rashford ended a six-game run without a league goal, with the contest effectively killed before half-time through a Jan Bednarek own goal and a header from Edinson Cavani. 

Scott McTominay, Bruno Fernandes, Daniel James and a double from Anthony Martial in the second half, with Bednarek also dismissed, helped the Red Devils match their biggest ever Premier League victory and inflicted a second 9-0 loss on Ralph Hasenhuttl in his career as Saints boss. 

Jankewitz's full Premier League debut ended in a hurry, the midfielder given a straight red card for a high challenge on McTominay. 

The home side got the breakthrough 18 minutes in, Wan-Bissaka cushioning a fine Luke Shaw cross into the bottom-left corner after a long Victor Lindelof pass had disrupted the defence. 

Shaw was key to the second seven minutes later too, driving into the box and feeding Mason Greenwood, whose cross was side-footed firmly past Alex McCarthy by Rashford. 

David de Gea made a good save from a James Ward-Prowse free-kick, but United were soon 3-0 up, the previously excellent Bednarek turning Rashford's cross into his own net. 

Cavani miscued from a Wan-Bissaka cross but made no mistake six minutes before the interval, steering a firm header past McCarthy from another precise Shaw delivery. 

VAR intervened to disallow a second-half consolation goal from Che Adams, the Saints striker penalised for a fractional offside following a quick free-kick from Ward-Prowse. 

Martial made it 5-0, taking down Fernandes' pass on the chest and firing high into the net, with McTominay then fizzing in a strike from outside the box two minutes later.

Fernandes converted from the penalty spot after Bednarek was sent off for a trip on Martial, who went on to add an eighth goal, though it was James who capped a stunning result with a clever flick from close range in added time.

Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford was sent racist abuse on social media after Saturday's 0-0 draw against Arsenal.

Rashford, 23, became the latest United player to be targeted after Anthony Martial and Axel Tuanzebe were insulted earlier this week.

The England international described the abuse as society, and social media, at its worst.

"Humanity and social media at its worst. Yes I'm a black man and I live every day proud that I am," Rashford wrote on Twitter.

"No one, or no one comment, is going to make me feel any different. So sorry if you were looking for a strong reaction, you're just simply not going to get it here.

"I'm not sharing screenshots. It would be irresponsible to do so and as you can imagine there's nothing original in them.

"I have beautiful children of all colours following me and they don't need to read it. Beautiful colours that should only be celebrated."

Chelsea defender Reece James and West Brom's Romaine Sawyers were also racially abused earlier this week.

The FA condemned the abuse of players earlier on Saturday.

Marcus Rashford took just too long with his one big chance against Arsenal.

By the time he had controlled Luke Shaw's cross and turned back behind Cedric Soares, goalkeeper Bernd Leno had closed his route to goal. Rashford turned, played it backwards, and the danger was gone.

That first-half moment and a later shot blasted into the side-netting were the sum total of Rashford's threatening moments in Saturday's goalless Premier League draw at the Emirates Stadium, the third game in United's previous four that they have failed to win.

Like the 0-0 draw at Liverpool two weeks ago, there was a feeling United should have done much more to exploit their opponents' vulnerable state, with Mikel Arteta unable to call upon Kieran Tierney, Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, his three most likely match-winners.

Like that stalemate at Anfield, Rashford failed to score, assist a goal or create a chance. Indeed, his assist for Paul Pogba's winning volley at Burnley is the only time Rashford has been directly involved in a goal in his past six league games. It's the longest time he has gone without a top-flight goal this season. The England forward has managed just one shot in target in his past five league games, so this is not just a case of an unfortunate dry spell against heroic goalkeeping.

Of course, Rashford scored one and set up another in the 3-2 FA Cup win over Jurgen Klopp's side, but that was a short reprieve from his recent rut. In league football lately, he has been reflective of Red Devils performances: sluggish, uninspired, inadequate.

Rashford is not alone in having lost his spark. A generally tepid encounter at the Emirates, reminiscent of past battles between these teams in name only, was another in which Bruno Fernandes could not influence the attack, where Edinson Cavani had three touches in the Arsenal penalty area and Luke Shaw, with three chances created, was the visitors' most enterprising attacking outlet.

While he attempted eight dribbles, the most he has tried in a league game since the win over Aston Villa on January 1, two of them were rather desperate runs through the middle of an Arsenal defensive pair, with little apparent forethought. Perhaps he thought too much when it came to distribution: for the second time in three league outings, he played one pass into the opposition penalty area. He has not found a team-mate with a cross since the 3-2 win at Southampton on November 29.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replaced Rashford with Mason Greenwood 10 minutes from time, and he seemed neither put out nor relieved to be given a break. He was simply... there, just on the other side of the touchline.

The United manager might be pleased with a second successive away game against a big-six side in which they have neither lost nor conceded a goal, helping them to a club-record 18-match unbeaten run on their travels. As with the Liverpool trip, they also had a clear chance to win, Cavani's late, twisting volley just missing the bottom-right corner of Bernd Leno's net.

Yet they have taken only one point from games against bottom-club Sheffield United and eighth-place Arsenal in a week in which Manchester City have opened up a three-point gap at the top of the table, with a game in hand. They've also failed to score a goal in five league games in a row against that big-six contingent.

Their title aspirations are beginning to look like Rashford's recent use of a football: worryingly misplaced.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believes a "more mature" Mason Greenwood is set for a big second half of the season as he hailed the influence of Edinson Cavani.

The United boss has been amazed by the impact made by Cavani since he signed on a free transfer after leaving Paris Saint-Germain.

That has included the lessons he has taught Greenwood, who has not kicked on as expected after his stunning first-team breakthrough last season.

Greenwood ended a 10-match run without a goal with a composed finish in the 3-2 FA Cup win over Liverpool on Sunday.

Solskjaer thinks that is a sign of things to come for the teenager.

"We think Mason is going be very important in the second half of the season, but it is not just going happen by itself," Solskjaer said ahead of Wednesday's home Premier League game with Sheffield United.

"He scored against West Ham a while back as well and was expected to kick on.

"He's taken steps, he's grown, he's more mature and he's been training with Edinson for half a season, he is learning good habits. 

"And whoever doesn't learn from players like him [Cavani], or Bruno [Fernandes] or the players we've brought in, that's a pity.

"I'm very confident that Mason will chip in good performances and with goals and assists."

Solskjaer was asked to elaborate on Cavani, who turns 34 next month having delighted the United boss on and off the pitch.

He added: "How long have we got? 

"What he brings is when a striker of that age runs almost 12 kilometres, every time he chases down the centre-back when he has got the ball, every time the goalkeeper has the ball.

"He tackles centre midfielders!

"He made a mistake for Liverpool's [second] goal but he is the one who is closest to winning it back inside our own 18-yard box. 

"His reaction, his work-rate, his habits, and his threat in the box and the humility of coming in every single day to do your best.

"We could go on and on and on but his experience and attitude, of course, that’s given us a lesson, every single one of us."

Marcus Rashford, who impressed against Liverpool, should be fit to face the Blades after a minor knee issue.

"We are looking strong, which is a good place to be in," Solskjaer added. "Marcus is available for selection, he tweaked his knee a little bit but trained fully this morning."

United are two points clear at the top of the Premier League as they prepare to face the team sitting bottom.

They have won their last seven home top-flight encounters with Sheffield United, a run that stretches back to August 1975.

Opta data shows the Blades collected just one point in eight top-flight meetings with the Red Devils and the fitness of Rashford will come as a blow.

That is because the England forward has been directly involved in six goals in his three Premier League outings against Chris Wilder's men (three goals, three assists), averaging a goal or assist every 43 minutes.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants Manchester United to harness the spirit of the 1999 treble-winning side when they face Liverpool in the FA Cup.

Solskjaer will make changes for the tie of the fourth round at Old Trafford on Sunday after a 2-1 win at Fulham on Wednesday, which put United two points clear at the top of the Premier League.

The Red Devils are still in the hunt for three trophies this season and face an out-of-sorts Liverpool side who are smarting from a shock 1-0 home defeat to Burnley on Thursday.

United dramatically beat the Reds 2-1 at the same stage of the FA Cup 22 years ago courtesy of late goals from Dwight Yorke and Solskjaer, then went on to complete a famous treble.

Solskjaer says dumping the Premier League champions out once again could be a big moment in what he hopes will be a glorious season.

"Of course we can transform a few things from that season. We know that there's tight moments, very fine margins. We know in that season we were close to going out against Liverpool," said the United boss.

"Peter Schmeichel saved a penalty from [Arsenal's] Dennis Bergkamp in the semi-final in injury time. Those moments, I think they gave us the mental advantage, especially in the semi-final.

"But against Liverpool as well in that fourth round, when you get that boost of turning 1-0 down to a 2-1 win against a big team it's massive.

"The FA Cup is a run we've got to enjoy as long as it lasts. We got to the semis last year and we're going to make a few changes but we'll put a team out there that I hope can go through."

Victor Lindelof is available to return from a back injury and Solskjaer will rotate his squad just a week after a drab goalless draw between United and Liverpool at Anfield in the top flight.

"Of course the focus is now on the FA Cup," said Solskjaer. "We know it's a difficult tie, I'm not the best on draws, I think they should try to get someone else in if they want an easy draw."

Solskjaer also said forwards Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani could all feature in the same side at some stage.

He said: "I used to play in a decent team and the gaffer [Alex Ferguson] had four centre-forwards at least to choose from and with the four front men we've got, we have players to choose from who can get us goals in any game, against any opposition.

"I'm very pleased with the ones I've got and we’re working hard to get the relationships with all of them so we can use them in different ways and sometimes maybe all four of them will play."

Marcus Rashford still has 5-10 per cent improvement to make as he approaches the prime of his career, according to former Manchester United and England captain Bryan Robson.

Rashford made it five games without a goal in 2021 as Premier League leaders United played out a goalless draw with champions Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday.

Nevertheless, the England forward is enjoying a productive season with 14 goals and six assists in all competitions.

The 23-year-old has only bettered that goal tally once across the course of an entire campaign, with 22 last term bolstered by six conversions from eight Premier League penalties - duties that now lie with Bruno Fernandes.

He netted one spot kick in the 4-1 Champions League win over Istanbul Basaksehir this time around and his 12 open-play goals in Europe's elite competition and the Premier League came from shots with a cumulative xG value of eight - highlighting some impressive efficiency in front of goal.

"Marcus is getting to an age where he’s maturing and will come to his prime soon," Robson told Stats Perform News.

"I think he’s really improved over the last two years. He's worked really hard on his physique and fitness. But I do believe there’s another 5-10 percent in Marcus.

"When things get easy for him in games he becomes a little bit lazy on the ball and gives it away more than he should.

"But that’s probably because we know he can create with a great pass, and sometimes when you're that little bit younger you don't have that real strong mentality to go further.

"I think he can go on to be a great player for Man United and England."

Although Anthony Martial opened the scoring in the 2-1 New Year's Day victory over Aston Villa, Rashford's fellow forward has found the going tougher in front of goal overall this season.

The France international has five goals in 22 games, with just two in 14 in the Premier League.

Robson believes the 25-year-old can sometimes struggle for confidence, while also highlighting his heavy workload as United's 2019-20 schedule ran on until the Europa League semi-final defeat to Sevilla in August.

"It was a long season for a few of the lads," he said. "It took a few of them quite a time to get going, they had no pre-season after Sevilla loss.

"I think it affected [Martial]. I don't think he's a totally confident lad.

"I think he needs encouraging, but I'm sure as the season goes on he just needs a run of games with a couple of goals."

Manchester United's record against the so-called 'big six' of the Premier League this season reads zero wins, two defeats and two draws.

They have conceded seven goals, six of them at home to Tottenham, and scored just once – a Bruno Fernandes penalty two minutes into that 6-1 hammering in October.

Fernandes scored their previous goal in these encounters from the spot, too, in a 1-1 draw at Spurs last June. In fact, you have to go back to March 2020 and their 2-0 win at home to Manchester City, the last Old Trafford game played in front of a crowd, for the previous occasion that they scored a goal against a big-six team that wasn't a penalty.

They might be top of the league heading into Sunday's showdown with Liverpool but, for a manager that made an early habit of extracting big performances against the best sides, that stat should be of serious concern to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

 

BIG ZERO SIX

Since the end of the 2019-20 shutdown, United have played seven games against the big six and won none of them, if you include domestic cup losses to Chelsea and City.

In league football alone, they have drawn against Tottenham, Chelsea and City and lost to Spurs and Arsenal, with just two Fernandes penalties to show for it. All their previous three such games were at home and they have not scored in any of them.

In their first 14 league games against these sides under Solskjaer, United won six times and lost only four, scoring 16 goals and conceding 13 – a decent record given their real problems with consistency.

The strange thing is United's winless run against the best has coincided with a general upturn in form since the previous season restarted last June. Taking only results in that time into account, United have played 26, won 17, lost just three, scored 56 goals and conceded 30. That's the best record of any side in the league and seven points better than Liverpool.

In fact, narrow that down to results against teams in the top half of the table in the same time frame, and United have lost the fewest games (two) of any side, with 21 points taken from 13 games, just three behind Jurgen Klopp's side.

So, why the recent drop-off against the very best?

Solskjaer's most dependable attacking weapons have been Fernandes, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, all three of whom will almost certainly start at Liverpool, barring injury.

They were all involved in their last big-six contest in the league, a 0-0 draw at home to City in December. Rashford managed only one shot all game and created no chances for anyone else; Martial, a late substitute, created one chance but had no shots himself. Fernandes, ever the fulcrum of United's attack, had four shots and created two chances.

The previous game was a staid goalless draw with Chelsea that made the derby look positively thrill-a-minute. That day, with Martial banned, Rashford was more involved, with three attempts at goal and two chances created; he was outdone by Fernandes (three shots, four chances created).

They don't exactly look like imperious figures, but they actually fall in line with their per-90-minute numbers for this season. On average, Rashford attempts 2.7 shots per game and creates 1.3 chances; Martial has 2.9 shots and creates 1.2 chances; Fernandes musters 3.6 shots and creates 3.4 chances.

Put succinctly, based on this season's performances, Fernandes should be expected to create between three and four goalscoring opportunities in every league game he starts for United. In other words, he was bang on his average against City and Chelsea. Rashford's numbers are similarly close to the mean.

United's best attackers, then, are keeping their performance levels consistent against the big six. They're just meeting greater resistance. That becomes clearer looking at expected goals.

In their most recent three league games against these sides, United have had xG of 0.6 against City, 0.7 against Chelsea and a lowly 0.4 in a 1-0 loss to Arsenal. In those same fixtures in 2019-20, those figures were 1.6 (in a 2-0 win against City), 2.2 (in a 4-0 win over Chelsea) and 0.9 (in a 1-1 draw with Arsenal). Interestingly, though, Chelsea and Arsenal had higher xG numbers in those games last season, even though they suffered worse results, and City's only increased this term by 0.7.

This reflects a general balancing out in these matches. They are, for the most part, more attritional and less unpredictable affairs settled by fine margins – exactly the sort of contest you'd expect between true heavyweights. United are not significantly under-performing each time; they're just not quite tilting the odds in their favour.

How, then, might they change that against Liverpool? There is one simple way.

SLAB EXPERIMENT

United have one particular weakness, regardless of opposition: set-pieces. This season, they have conceded 11 goals from set-plays; only Wolves (12), Brighton and Hove Albion (14) and Leeds United (16) have a worse record. They have shipped four goals from corners, the same number as Liverpool, but the champions have only conceded eight times from dead-ball situations overall.

At the other end, United have scored 10 goals from set-pieces, a tally bettered by just four teams: Aston Villa and Southampton (11), and Chelsea and Liverpool (12). Only Chelsea (34) have created more dead-ball chances than United (31).

There is an argument to say they should have more set-piece goals than anyone else. It's an argument that centres around their captain – the man who might be the very thing United need to get back to scoring against, and winning against, big-six opposition.

Since the start of last season, Harry Maguire has won 73 per cent of his aerial duels in the Premier League. That's the best rate of anyone who has contested at least 300 in that time. In fact, he has lost only 98 of the 341 he has been involved in, which is the lowest number of losses across the same period within that elite group.

However, in an attacking sense, the world's most expensive defender doesn't seem to have his head on straight. Since the start of 2019-20, he has attempted 27 headed shots, hit the target with just nine of them, and scored with two. Of players with at least 20 headed shots in that time, only four have hit the target less often.

On Sunday, Maguire will face a Liverpool side without Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and possibly Joel Matip. He will rarely have a better chance of stealing a march at set-plays and, if he does, he could well end United's wait for a goal – and a win – against the best. Sometimes, those fine margins are the width of a forehead.

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