Redemption for Victor Lindelof gives Man United supporters another reason to believe
"It's the best I have seen him play for United"
Heading into Sunday's crunch game against Liverpool, at Anfield, not many were predicting Victor Lindelof would start in the centre of Manchester United's defence. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had other ideas.
We may have seen Eric Bailly mobbed by his United teammates after his brave block in the dying moments of the league win over Aston Villa, and a similar interception against Burnley, but Solskjaer had a man in mind to bottle Liverpool's lightning.
That man was a Swede who has been described as 'constantly looking like he is coming out of a nightclub at 3am', but the United boss had him primed for Salah, Mané and Firmino.
"Victor has been training this week to get ready for this game," Solskjaer told Sky Sports after the 0-0 draw at Anfield. "I gave him the Burnley game off."
It had always been the Norwegian's intention, then, to rest up Lindelof and get his mind on containing Liverpool's usually potent attack, but one that has struggled against United in recent outings.
Ahead of the game, social media was abuzz that Bailly's reward for his return to fitness and form was a place on the United bench. Over in the Sky Sports studio, though, Roy Keane was unperturbed.
"I don’t think it is such a big change," the former United captain remarked.
"I think Solskjaer likes Lindelof. He’s built up a good relationship over the last year or two with Harry Maguire. There are always question marks over him in the big games, they might miss the pace of Bailly, but I don’t think it’s such a big decision."
The Swede may not have set Keane's pulse racing [or if it did, he didn't sow it] but many United fans will have felt a quiver or two at seeing him back in the starting XI for such a big game. For all his grace and timing in defence, in his best moments, he is prone to at least one major lapse per game. At times, it has cost his team dearly.
Against Liverpool, though, he was dialled in from the start. He got in block on Salah and Firmino and, even when Liverpool's attackers got shots away, his pressure forced those shots to skew wide or cause David De Gea the minimum of problems. Lindelof made 10 clearances in the game, the most from a United player all season, and he was tidy in possession. In the closing 20 minutes, he got his head onto a couple of tricky crosses to clear the danger.
The 26-year-old was involved in one of the big post-match talking points, too, as he stopped his pursuit of the ball over the top for Sadio Mané. Lindelof and Mané both pulled up as Paul Tierney blew his half-time whistle, although Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson (and many of his club's fans) wanted play to continue.
Writing about that moment in the Daily Mail, former referee Mark Calttenburg felt Tierney could have allowed that minute of added time to play out [he blew his whistle at 45:54] but gave a reasoning for the early whistle.
"Paul Tierney wanted play to finish in a neutral area, as is standard for referees. Technically, Tierney should have waited until the minimum of one minute had been played. He was helped by the fact Mane and Victor Lindelof then stopped playing."
Had this been six months ago, Lindelof stopping because I heard a whistle might have resulted in a goal and torrents of criticism about his casual demeanour. But his curve is heading upward and, at the same time, that of Liverpool's front three is in decline.
"Titles are won on defences," says pundit Kevin McGillicuddy. "Lindelof was excellent. It's probably one of the best performances I've seen of him in a United shirt. He was excellent, and he made one crucial interception in the second half when the ball was fizzed across the box towards the penalty spot... United are very strong at the back right now."
Added to that were words of praise from Micah Richards and Danny Murphy and it was a day that ended with United fans feeling confident about that oft-times shaky defence of their's. They may have conceded 10 goals in their last 11 games but there have been six clean sheets in there. Four of them have come in the league and have helped Solskjaer's side put together this run of nine wins and three draws in their last 12 games.
Manchester City are starting to hum, but belief is calcifying in the red half of the city, and the club's outposts the world over.