Hot and cold Manchester United face festive test: Richard Buxton
Wins against Everton and Leicester can halt United's cycle of unpredictability
Lurching between hope and despair is now the new normal for Manchester United.
Grey areas exist within Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's hair follicles but not the fabric of daily life at Old Trafford after a 6-2 rout over Leeds United yesterday morning (Singapore time).
Measuring progress in the two years since the Norwegian's appointment is difficult when the Red Devils are a black-and-white team; everything is either brilliant or abject.
They sit five points behind leaders Liverpool in the English Premier League table with a game in hand, yet remain wildly inconsistent, as their most recent performances underline.
Only the defending champions and Manchester City have garnered more top-flight points than Solskjaer's 132 since succeeding Jose Mourinho in December 2018.
Going toe to toe with Juergen Klopp's unassailable charges still does not mitigate a humiliating exit from a Champions League group that was theirs for the taking.
Solskjaer is often prone to hyperbole but refrained from joining United's hype train after emphatically downing their sworn enemy from across the Pennines.
His former teammate Gary Neville prematurely hailed Scott McTominay as a hybrid of Old Trafford icons Roy Keane and Paul Scholes for hitting a brace inside three minutes.
Keane himself, routinely the Theatre of Dreams' harbinger of doom, went one further by insisting United have the potential to be "the best of the rest" in the EPL's chasing pack.
Tempting as it may be to indulge in the fanfare, however, Solskjaer stopped short of declaring the 20-time English champions legitimate contenders to hunt down the Reds.
The former Cardiff City boss has good reason to remain apprehensive, with United's Christmas schedule threatening to hit the reset button on their current aspirations.
A League Cup quarter-final at Everton on Thursday morning will not offer the same simplicity which allowed them to cut through Marcelo Bielsa's side like lambs to the slaughter.
Coming up against a master of tactical discipline in Carlo Ancelotti, who has steered the Toffees to directly beneath United in the table on goal difference alone, poses a different challenge to their latest EPL visit to Goodison Park last month.
Solskjaer staved off further scrutiny in a 3-1 win played out in the absence of both home supporters and a suspended Richarlison.
With Everton fans back on song and their Brazilian talisman similarly in form, another walkover in the last eight is unlikely.
So, too, is United winning maximum points from their Boxing Day trip to second-placed Leicester City and the visit of a formidable Wolverhampton Wanderers three days later.
Better teams than Solskjaer's have faltered in front of Goodison's miniature bear pit.
Chelsea saw their domestic designs shelved beneath the floodlights to spark a hat-trick of Everton wins that made Ancelotti's 12-month anniversary yesterday a happier affair.
Should they succeed in progressing to within 90 minutes of a Wembley appearance, the "Merry Christmas, Everton" references which have lingered in the Merseyside air each winter for the past number of years will take on an altogether different meaning.
For Solskjaer, too, the festive period has the potential to redefine his United tenure.
Taking the spoils against Everton and anything other than defeat at the King Power Stadium on Saturday will see United's domestic ambitions becoming fully realised.
Failure to achieve either of them only continues the cycle of unpredictability that has seen the baby-faced assassin visibly age far more than his doomed predecessors.
MAN UNITED'S FESTIVE FIXTURES*
LEAGUE CUP Q-FINAL
- Thurs, 4am: v Everton (away)
- Sat, 8.30pm: v Leicester (A)
- Dec 30, 4am: v Wolves (Home)
- Jan 2, 4am: v Aston Villa (H)
*All in Singapore time