Manchester United’s Paul Pogba (right) attends a training session on Friday. Courtesy: Manchester United FC website
Paul Pogba is back in form for Manchester United at just the right time as the Premier League leaders prepare for Sunday’s FA Cup showdown with bitter rivals Liverpool.
Pogba has been a constant source of friction during his second spell with United and recent suggestions that he was keen to engineer a close-season transfer came as little surprise.
Mino Raiola, the France midfielder’s agent, infuriated United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in December by giving an interview in which he suggested Pogba wanted to leave because he was “unhappy” with the lack of freedom granted to him at Old Trafford.
At the time, Pogba’s form was so erratic and his team’s results so concerning, that some United fans would gladly have helped him to the exit door.
Perceived in some quarters to be a bad influence on some of his younger United team-mates, Pogba’s stock could not have been any lower when Solskjaer’s side crashed out of the Champions League in the same week Raiola made his inflammatory claims.
At that point, a move to his former club Juventus or a possible switch to Paris Saint Germain or Real Madrid seemed inevitable.
But from the ashes of what looked like a season-defining calamity, both Pogba and United have unexpectedly returned to prominence.
Finally showing signs of knuckling down and putting his focus on football rather than his image and commercial interests, Pogba has played a key role in United’s surge to the top of the Premier League.
Solskjaer reportedly made his displeasure known to Pogba about Raiola’s intervention, but did not lose his cool with the 27-year-old.
Pogba has repaid that show of faith with match-winning goals in United’s league victories at Burnley and then Fulham on Wednesday.
The World Cup winner’s superb curler against Fulham was only his fourth goal of the season but, with Pogba back in the groove, United are a far more formidable force.
Sitting two points clear at the top of the Premier League, United are in contention for a first English title since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
After the dour goalless draw between the old foes in the league at Anfield on January 17, United have a chance to inflict a psychological blow on Liverpool when the champions visit Old Trafford in the FA Cup fourth round this weekend.
The question on the lips of everyone at United is whether Pogba can sustain his sudden hot streak.
Some believe Pogba is motivated by a desire to keep his place in the France team ahead of this year’s delayed European Championships.
Whatever the reason behind Pogba’s renaissance, Solskjaer would clearly benefit from keeping his temperamental playmaker in a positive frame of mind.
“He’s enjoying his football, he’s happy. Mentally he’s very happy and physically he’s in a very good shape and we know all about his talents,” Solskjaer said.
Meanwhile, Frank Lampard is relishing the prospect of leading Chelsea out of a poor run of Premier League form.
The 42-year-old former England midfielder’s future at Stamford Bridge has become a hot topic, with Chelsea having lost five of their last eight league matches.
Lampard’s emerging side are at home to Luton in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Sunday and a further slip-up against the Hatters will only add to the pressure on the Chelsea manager.
But the former Chelsea and England midfielder told reporters on Friday: “I’m a fighter first and foremost, it’s how I managed to make a career out of the game as a player.
“So when I packed up I could have easily stayed in the media or left football completely, I didn’t need to come back in.”
He added: “I love the job, and I love the fact that if there are tough times you can fight your way out of it. And I’m not just talking about me I’m talking about the players now, because at the minute we know we’re not firing.”