COMMENT: And suddenly it's all coming straight at Jesse Lingard... and fast. If he's ever going to lay down a marker. If he's ever going to rescue his Manchester United career. It's going to be today. At Wembley. In the FA Cup...
Last week's half hour against Crystal Palace was the first bit of senior football Lingard has seen since February. Now well inside the final year of his contract. And with no sign of talks about a new deal. Lingard has been offered a lifeline by his manager.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has left the door ajar. And the manager's hope is Lingard will kick it open today against Chelsea. All things considered, a start today shouldn't really surprise. After all, he has played in four of the five ties leading up to this FA Cup semifinal. But make no mistake, this is a lifeline thrown to Lingard. On form. On results. The midfielder doesn't get anywhere near United's current starting XI. But clearly, while others - many others - have written off the 27 year-old, Solskjaer hasn't. A relationship that stretches back almost ten years from when the Norwegian began his coaching career inside the Carrington academy, Solskjaer isn't ready to give up on Lingard just yet.
"Jesse is a part of the club and he's worked really hard," said Solskjaer in his pre-match presser, touching on what this column has been told regarding Lingard's approach to training during this restart. “He deserves his chance to come back in and we know his qualities. We know that Jesse's got different qualities to other players and he knows that we value him."
So there's still that reputation which gives Lingard a chance. But more than anything, it's been his attitude, his personality and a willingness to get his head down and not give up which has earned him this (potential) call today. A half-hour of football since February. A contract which could see him commit to a new club in just over five months' time. Lingard could already be planning for elsewhere. But he hasn't. And the reward. His big chance to turn it all around. Could be handed to him today.
And United fans should know, he will have earned it. Barely 24 hours before announcing this shot for Lingard, Solskjaer was effectively ending the United career of a teammate.
Marcos Rojo, stuck in Argentina with his loan at Estudiantes having gone sour, was told by his manager - via a public media conference no less - to find himself another club. The ruthlessness of Solskjaer, as we've mentioned in past columns, coming to the surface earlier this week: "At the moment, I can't see him coming back here over the summer, obviously because we live in this bubble, and we've got this squad available until next season.
"So he just needs to focus on getting fit and staying fit and being ready for wherever that takes him."
There's no second guessing that. Rojo's run-ins with authorities in La Plata proving the final straw for Solskjaer. Whatever you think of the lockdown laws (and this column believes they're oppressive), Rojo did worse than twice run afoul of local authorities. He ignored the requests of his parent club. The frustration of Solskjaer surfacing with those comments this week.
And it's a frustration that has also surfaced regarding Lingard. Particularly with his behaviour on social media. The difference being: Lingard took his manager's warning seriously.
“I don't think you see as much social media from Jesse as you used to," said Solskjaer earlier this year. “He's got his head down and is working hard to get back to the Jesse I knew."
But it's been no easy road back. The surprise cameo against Palace is proof of that. And no matter what happens today, there'll still be decisions for both player and club to make in the coming months.
As it stands, Lingard is no first-choice. And a risk at even being pushed off the substitutes bench. If Jack Grealish arrives from Aston Villa. Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund. Things will only get worse.
But it is still less than two years since Russia and a World Cup campaign which had Lingard top of the English game. It wasn't Raheem Sterling fans and local media were heralding, but United's No14. The question for Solskjaer is: can he get Lingard back to those days?
Well, if he's ever going to do it, it'll be at Wembley. Lingard having scored in FA Cup and League Cup wins against Crystal Palace and Southampton respectively, along with a wonder goal in the Community Shield triumph over Leicester City.
A contract. A first team place. It's all coming fast at Lingard. But if he's ever going to turn it around, it'll be at Wembley today against Chelsea.