Where do the potential banana skins lie for Man United over Christmas?

Solskjaer’s correct to say Manchester United’s festive fixtures could turn them into genuine title challengers… after being a favourite for the sack all season, a burst of wins will send confidence sky-high at Old Trafford

  • Manchester United currently sit eight points behind top-flight leaders Liverpool  
  • They have played two fewer games in the Premier League than the champions
  • United begin their run of six games in two weeks at Sheffield United on Thursday 
  • Leeds, Wolves and Aston Villa all visit Old Trafford during the next fortnight
  • They also face a League Cup quarter-final against Everton and a visit to Leicester

Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was clear in his message. The next 15 days will be the beginning, or the end, of a Premier League title challenge.

‘This is a big run of games for us,’ Solskjaer said ahead of a vital run of five quickfire league fixtures that starts with Sheffield United on Thursday. ‘I’d be disappointed if the players didn’t think we can put up a challenge. 

‘From kick-off against Sheffield United to kick-off against Villa it’s 15 times 24 hours, so it’s going to be very tight. Whoever finds the consistency and the energy will have a better chance than in the last few seasons, because there have been a few runaway teams.’

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer insists the festive period will be crucial if Manchester United are to mount a challenge for the Premier League title

The Old Trafford club already sit eight points behind leaders Liverpool but have played two fewer Premier League games than the current champions.

United’s toughest league test on paper during the festive period comes away at Leicester on Boxing Day, while they will hope to keep their hopes of a League Cup win alive when they travel to Everton three days before. 

Here, Sportsmail analyses the club’s Christmas run-in, which consists of six crucial games in what is set to be a defining fortnight for club and manager.

Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and co. face a run of six fixtures over the next fortnight

Sheffield United (away) – December 17 – Premier League

Solskjaer could hardly have asked for a better fixture to kickstart the run of games over the festive period as his side visit Bramall Lane to taken on winless Sheffield United.

Chris Wilder’s men sit bottom of the Premier League, with their only point so far this season coming in a home draw with Fulham in October.

The Norwegian insisted the Blades boss has the ability to deal with the pressure surrounding his future mentally, but will secretly know his side will go in as huge favourites to secure victory.

The Norwegian may have seen a rather uninspiring performance in the Manchester derby, but will acknowledge the fact his side have the quality to return to winning ways here. 

Prediction: Win

Man United will go in as heavy favourites to beat winless Sheffield United at Bramall Lane

Leeds United (home) – December 20 – Premier League

Manchester United had planned to welcome 2,000 fans back for this fixture if the city was moved out of Tier 3, but that plan is now on the back burner after the latest announcement. 

Marcelo Bielsa’s side’s bold approach has made them the league’s mercurial side this season, having beaten the likes of Newcastle 5-2 but also having slumped to resounding defeats such as the 4-1 loss to Crystal Palace.

The Red Devils’ defensive issues mean they are likely to concede against an excellent Leeds attack, with Patrick Bamford particularly on song with nine goals already this campaign.

But the visitors’ expansive style of play should see the hosts exploit the gaps that are usually left in defence by Leeds and use the counter-attacking abilities of Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes to devastating effect.

Prediction: Win 

Fans may return to Old Trafford for the first time since March for the visit of mercurial Leeds

Everton (away) –  December 23 – League Cup

The Carabao Cup represents United’s first opportunity to win a trophy for the first time since May 2017, but it looks like they will be facing a resurgent Everton side in the quarter-finals.

Carlo Ancelotti’s men had only one of their last six matches before a Gylfi Sigurdsson penalty secured a crucial win over Chelsea at the weekend, and they followed that up by downing Leicester at the King Power Stadium on Wednesday night.

United however crawled out of a slump of their own after defeats by Arsenal and Istanbul Basaksehir with victory at Goodison Park last month following a Bruno Fernandes double and Edinson Cavani’s added-time strike. 

Changes are likely to be made by both sides given the hectic nature of the Christmas period and the need for rest due to the compact schedule, but this one may still go down to the wire. 

Prediction: Draw (United to win on penalties) 

United will be hoping to keep their hopes of a first trophy since 2017 alive when facing Everton

Leicester City (away) – December 26 – Premier League

Arguably the most difficult fixture over the festive period, United face the side they beat on the final day of last season to secure a Champions League at the hosts’ expense.

Leicester have made another flying start to the campaign and – as they did for much of last season – currently sit in the top four as they look to go one better following the heartbreaking end to 2019-20.

However, two of the Foxes’ three most recent top-flight matches have ended up in reverses to Fulham and Everton, meaning there is more than a glimmer of hope that the Old Trafford outfit could be ahead of Brendan Rodgers’ men by the end of the game on Boxing Day. 

Prediction: Win 

United face a Leicester side they beat at the King Power Stadium on the final day of last season

Wolves (home) December 29 – Premier League 

This fixture last season marked Bruno Fernandes’ debut, but he could not avoid it being a dogged goalless stalemate between the two sides in February.

Nuno Espirito Santo’s men have looked relatively solid at the back this season but it is their end product which is of current concern, with only Arsenal and Fulham having scored fewer than their 13 of the sides not in the relegation zone.

However, a last-gasp goal from Pedro Neto secured a morale-boosting victory against Chelsea on Tuesday and should that spark them into life it could see may another drab draw avoided at Old Trafford. 

United however have struggled at times domestically on home soil in 2020-21 with sides who sit back, and therefore we may be heading for a score draw on this occasion if the visitors show defensive resilience through the likes of Conor Coady. 

Prediction: Draw

United played out a dogged draw against Pedro Neto and Wolves at Old Trafford in February

Aston Villa (home) – January 1 – Premier League

United’s run of fixtures over the festive period conclude with the visit of Aston Villa, who have been excellent on their travels this season.

Dean Smith has seen his side already collect wins at Wolves, Arsenal and Leicester, and the visit of Liverpool to Villa Park ended in a 7-2 drubbing for Jurgen Klopp’s men.

Only West Ham have managed a home Premier League victory against the West Midlands club this season, and even then striker Ollie Watkins was denied an equaliser by VAR in stoppage time.

That demonstrates the task ahead of United facing a vibrant Villa side. However, with the likes of Ollie Watkins, Jack Grealish and Ross Barkley could give Harry Maguire and co. the run-around, the hosts will fancy countering their opponents.

Prediction: Win 

Aston Villa have already beaten Wolves, Arsenal and Leicester away from home this season

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