It has been seven years since Manchester United have been a part of the conversation while discussing Europe’s elite clubs. Ever since their fall from grace after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, the club has looked a shell of its former self.

During the post-Fergie era, the Old Trafford hierarchy have tried multiple approaches to return the club to its former glory without much luck. David Moyes was first up but the Scot failed to adjust to life and the expectations that come with being in charge of the biggest club in England.

Moyes’ reign was followed by Dutchman Louis van Gaal’s time as United manager. However, the experienced van Gaal’s sterile and conservative brand of football found it difficult to win over the Old Trafford faithful and ended in him being relieved of his duties following an FA Cup triumph.

The Dutchman’s two-year reign was followed by Jose Mourinho being made manager in the red side of Manchester. A serial-winner, Mourinho was touted as the man to get United back to where they belonged. And to be fair, the Portuguese manager did deliver on the promise of trophies in the form of a League Cup and a Europa League in his first campaign with the club.

Mourinho’s second season at United saw the Red Devils finish runner-up in the league but 19 points behind champions and neighbours Manchester City. His third year ended with United parting ways with him in December after one of the club’s worst starts to a league campaign.

He was replaced by club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjær as caretaker manager, but a strong run of results ended in the Norwegian ensuring that the appointment was made permanent. However, not long after being appointed as permanent manager, the wheels came off United’s campaign as they slumped to a fifth-place finish last season.

The optimism that accompanied the first few months of Solskjær’s reign gradually gave away to scepticism and there were several question marks surrounding his suitability for a job the stature of United at the start of the ongoing season.

To make matters worse, a poor start to the campaign further added to the pressure, and at one point in January, it looked like the writing was on the wall for Solskjær. However, the signing of Bruno Fernandes heralded a much-needed change in terms of results and performances.

Currently on an unbeaten 18-match run, Bruno has had a transformative effect on the club and hasn’t been a part of a losing team yet during his time in England. The in-form team since the resumption of the Premier League after lockdown, United have been notching up the wins and playing attractive football – something we hadn’t seen at Old Trafford during the reigns of Solskjær’s more experienced predecessors.

Fans were renewed with optimism, comparing the current team with the United of old and Bruno to Eric Cantona. However, putting the current crop of United players in the same bracket as the great United teams of the past seems a bit premature at this stage.

While the attacking fervour and attractive brand of football on display does remind one of the dominant United teams, the clinical nature of those great sides in front of the goal, as well as when other rivals slipped up, hasn’t been matched yet.

The latest example of United failing to make the most of a rival slip-up was seen at Old Trafford on Monday night. United looked primed to jump from fifth to third in the standings with a win over Southampton only for the Saints to net a last-minute equaliser.

The result meant that United stayed in fifth spot, having blown another opportunity to move into a Champions League spot. It wasn’t the first time this season that United found themselves in a position to capitalise on a rival's setback.

In fact, they’ve had as many as six opportunities to make the most of dropped points by their top four rivals without winning once. There have been many false dawns for United in the past seven years and while the club looks like it’s heading in the right direction, they must seize opportunities handed to them by their rivals if they truly want to be among Europe’s elite clubs once again.

Feature image courtesy: AFP / Peter Powell

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