LEEDS, England — A goalless draw with Leeds United did little to suggest Manchester United are qualified to be part of a European Super League, but there was enough on show at Elland Road to show Ole Gunnar Solskjaer what is necessary to make his team genuine title contenders. Their slim hopes of chasing down Premier League leaders Manchester City this season are all but over after they were forced to settle for a point in West Yorkshire.
United did enough to win, but their best effort was a free kick from Marcus Rashford that was athletically tipped over the crossbar by Illan Meslier. Otherwise, the Leeds goalkeeper enjoyed a relatively quiet afternoon. The first league meeting between the teams at Elland Road since 2003 had none of the chaos of United’s 6-2 win at Old Trafford in December.
Solskjaer’s side have only lost four Premier League games this season — the same number as City — but have drawn 10. It points to a missing piece of attacking quality needed to decide tight games, and Solskjaer will hope it can be addressed during the summer transfer window.
Twice on Sunday Daniel James looked to have been sent through but fluffed his lines. Another good chance fell to Bruno Fernandes but he dragged his shot wide. The visitors’ frustration almost boiled over in the second half when Harry Maguire and Fred were involved in an angry exchange.
“I thought we played well, dominated the second half, just didn’t have the ball to fall correctly for us in the moments we had,” said Solskjaer after the match. “When two teams meet you create problems, you solve problems, they give you things to think about and we made them adjust to us. We put a really big shift in. I have seen Leeds run over teams in the second half and it was the opposite.
“You don’t lose momentum, we are disappointed not to win but the boys have a lot of respect for Leeds. This is not going to be something we look back on as derailing our season.
“Maybe we just missed that spark. With a couple of additions, we are always looking to strengthen the squad.”
The ESL debacle of the past seven days has sparked more scrutiny of the way United are run off the pitch. Ahead of kickoff, a plane was flown over the stadium carrying the message “£2bn stolen Glazers out.”
On the pitch, however, Solskjaer has plenty to be encouraged about. The club-record run of away matches without defeat has been extended to 24. It’s also now 13 games unbeaten in the league since defeat to Sheffield United in January, and Champions League football will be guaranteed with another four points from the final five games.
In January, it looked like United were contenders for the title, but the next step will be to maintain a challenge into April and May. Draws will have to be turned into wins.
“We have to win every single game to put pressure on City,” said Solskjaer. “This is two points dropped that makes them very safe. But we push on. We have two semis coming up and Liverpool in the middle. It was a difficult week last week but it is the business end of the season. You work so that every game matters.”
Leeds, to their credit, have played five games against the Big Six at Elland Road and have not lost one. A top-10 finish in their first season back in the Premier League would be just reward for the way Marcelo Biesla and his players have attacked the division. With five games left, they are ninth in the table, ahead of “Super League” Arsenal. Biesla, though, is still searching for improvement.
“In none of the games against the Big Six sides, apart from against Arsenal, were we able to dominate; but the draws against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea are good games to judge the players,” he said. “Clearly at this moment we can’t go into the games to dominate these type of games. Dominating to try and win at this moment, we haven’t achieved that.”
For United, the focus turns to Thursday and the Europa League semifinal first leg against AS Roma. Solskjaer has said more than once that results in the league are a better measure of progress but will know that winning the first trophy of his reign would put a different spin on the season, particularly if it’s combined with finishing second. For a week or so the challenge of bridging the gap with City can wait.
“We have focused on the game, of course it was a difficult week,” said Solskjaer. “I am really happy with the boys’ focus, they have such a determination to finish the season strong. The Europa League disappointment [last season] still sticks in their minds and hearts. We are focused on Roma and Liverpool in between.”