01.07.2020 16:16 h

Fernandes stars as Man Utd momentum builds

Manchester United have hit the ground running after the coronavirus shutdown, building on their momentum before the enforced break as the inspirational Bruno Fernandes quickly gains hero status.

When the Portuguese midfielder was signed in the final days of the January transfer window, United had just been booed off after a shocking 2-0 home defeat to Burnley as the atmosphere at Old Trafford turned toxic.

However, Fernandes's arrival has lifted the mood and instantly changed United's fortunes on the field.

The 55 million euro (£50 million, $62 million) signing has scored six goals and provided four assists in 13 appearances to keep United in the hunt in three different competitions.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men are unbeaten in 15 games either side of the three-month coronavirus shutdown and they are reaping the rewards of the enforced break, with Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford fit again after long-term injuries.

Pogba and Fernandes have immediately formed a formidable midfield pairing rarely seen in the seven years of decline at Old Trafford since former manager Alex Ferguson retired.

"There is quality in that team, our players are fit and we have competition for places now," Solskjaer said after his team's 3-0 win against Brighton on Tuesday.

"I've got more than one game-changer, we have some top players and Bruno has come and been fantastic.

"He has brought that winning mentality with him, that 99 percent is not good enough -- it has to be 100 percent. It's a joy to watch them when you see them express themselves like that."

Fernandes scored twice, including one sensational finish on the volley, as United steamrolled Brighton to close within two points of the top four.

Solskjaer's men are also into the semi-finals of the FA Cup and will restart their Europa League campaign in August with a 5-0 lead from the first leg of their last-16 tie against Austrians LASK.

United fans have had to watch on in anguish as rivals Liverpool and Manchester City have gone head-to-head for the Premier League title in recent seasons.

They are still an enormous 34 points adrift of Liverpool, but the newly crowned champions' revival under Jurgen Klopp shows the transformational impact a few key signings can make.

The signing of Virgil van Dijk in January 2018 turned Klopp's Liverpool from entertainers into serial winners.

United were hoping for the same impact when they broke the world transfer record for a defender by signing Harry Maguire for £80 million in August -- five million more than Van Dijk.

The England international has struggled to match those lofty expectations and was fiercely criticised as recently as United's first game of the Premier League's restart as his lack of pace was exposed by Tottenham's Steven Bergwijn for the opening goal in a 1-1 draw.

However, there are signs he is tightening up a United defence that has now kept 11 clean sheets in the 15-game unbeaten run, including two shutouts in victories over Manchester City and a 2-0 win at Chelsea in February.

Another expensive summer recruit, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, is also justifying his £50 million fee at right-back as for the first time in many years, United's transfer spending is bearing fruit.

At the other end of the pitch, another trait of United's glory days under Ferguson is also being rekindled in the emergence of Mason Greenwood.

The 18-year-old scored the opener at Brighton to take his tally for the season to 13 before setting up Fernandes's second.

"He's a special talent, a special kid that we're going to look after and try to develop into a top, top player," said Solskjaer.

An exciting front three of Greenwood, another United academy graduate Rashford, 22, and Anthony Martial, 24, also gives Solskjaer cause for optimism that even better things are to come.

Between them Greenwood, Rashford and Martial have now scored 51 goals this season, the same number of Liverpool's lauded trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.