COMMENT: Equal first on the table. Inspired by a player good enough to walk into any of their past great teams. In the first days of 2021, has Manchester United ever been in a better place since Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement? Oh, and it doesn't stop there - the board has just agreed to sell Paul Pogba...
But there's a catch. There won't be any more attempts to discuss new terms. And there'll no longer be any crazy suggestions that Pogba simply run down his deal. But there's still a qualifier - the two parties will have to tolerate eachother for another six months. A sale this January, at least for now, is off the table.
Question is: can Ole trust him? Or to be more accurate, can Ole trust his hangers-on?
When it comes to those pulling the strings, the manager has more than held up his end of the bargain. This column has long argued the case and we're now seeing the fruits. United are at the right end of the table in spite of the Pogba circus, not because of it. Yes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United's manager, has been playing his No6. But it's been strictly a bit-part role. The hype. The bluster. Of course, it says otherwise. But 20 minutes here. A rare start there. It isn't the stuff of a first-choice, senior player. Solskjaer has moved on. The board, finally, appears to be doing the same. But with so much at stake. Unlike anything we've seen from United since Sir Alex stepped down seven years ago. Do United risk it all blowing up by keeping Pogba around for the remainder of this season?
After all, it was Pogba - via the French Football Federation - who felt the need to run down Solskjaer's work and talk himself up to any suitor that still holds an interest in him. That was during the last international get-together. Weeks later, on the eve of that Champions League showdown at RB Leipzig, it was his agent, Mino Raiola, doing the talking. It's an old, sad story now, but the frustrating aspect was the reaction to Raiola. As bad as it was, he was just repeating - in a more blunt fashion - what Pogba had stated in his France tracksuit in previous weeks. There was no reason for it. He had done nothing this year to warrant it. But both Pogba and Raiola were arrogant enough in a show of sheer public insult to run down everything Solskjaer had been attempting to build these past two years.
And this isn't business. It's personal. Just ask the manager up the road at Manchester City. It's now nine years since Pep Guardiola last worked with another of Raiola's clients - Zlatan Ibrahimovic - at Barcelona. Yet the Italian continues to take jabs at the City boss. That Solskjaer has frozen out another on his books, Sergio Romero, is surely only adding to Raiola's motivation to keep publicly chipping away.
And in the background, looking on gleefully, are Pogba's sponsors. As we said, Pogba, as a player, is an extra in this season. A bit-part actor (sorry Aston Villa fans) with a bit-part role. But for adidas he's box office. Good or bad, the subject of the headlines matter little. It's just about getting Pogba, in his adidas gear, on the backpages. In people's news feeds. It could hurt United. It could cost a manager his job. But the execs at adidas couldn't care less.
The clicks. The shares. They went through the roof after United were bundled out of the Champions League. Pogba was the villain. But he was still the driving headline. And the advertising execs at adidas couldn't have been happier.
And this is what Solskjaer must manage for these remaining six months. Six months that offer United their best shot at Premier League title glory in seven years. A race as tight as we've ever seen this past decade. A battle where spirit, unity and bottle will make the difference. Everything that Pogba has failed to show these last 12 months. You can't trust him - and you can't trust those around him.
Who Solskjaer can trust is the player which all this hangs upon: Bruno Fernandes. A player, who only Friday night, spoke enthusiastically of Pogba - just as he has in past weeks. It's unfortunate this has been rarely reciprocated. Pogba certainly hasn't been as generous in public about Fernandes as the Portuguese has about him.
But that's the difference. The difference between a big football personality and a clothes horse. Fernandes doesn't need friends to speak for him. He doesn't need whoah-is-me campaigns to keep himself in the headlines. He runs away from that. He's a footballer. A proper footballer. A player breaking club records here, there and everywhere. Young United fans are seeing, albeit from their couch, a player to live with Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona... and potentially George Best. They're witnessing greatness develop in front of them.
It's just a shame supporters are being denied seeing this up close. Cameras can't catch the visible drive of Fernandes. The body language. The gesticulating. Everything that connects a legend with those in the stands. At the moment the connection is digital. Virtual. And nowhere near what it should be.
For this column, we're talking about a player capable of getting on the dais of the Ballon d'Or. If Antoine Griezmann or Virgil van Dijk can get in the top three. If Luka Modric can actually win the thing. Then why can't Fernandes, on his 2020 form, get himself in the mix also? Of course, a potentially long Champions League run - now sabotaged - would've helped. Instead, he'll have to do it the hard way. The football way. On the pitch. There's no entourage in the press talking up Bruno Fernandes. Certainly, not in the way Pogba's well-connected friends do.
For now, they'll roll on as it is. Fernandes will continue to carry things on his shoulders. Pogba will continue to have his ego stroked. And Solskjaer will hope the inevitable transfer claim from his No6, the inevitable swipe from Raiola and the inevitable social media campaign from a sponsor won't be made at the wrong time.
The board have made the right call selling Pogba. But it's still a call that could leave a title challenge at the mercy of Pogba and his minders. An entourage that has shown little regard for what United and their manager have been putting together these last two years. Why would these last six months be any different?