Richard Buxton: United's fading title hopes given boost by Ibra, Pogba
Red Devils' fading title hopes boosted by timely return of Pogba and Ibrahimovic
Manchester United are threatening to breathe new life into the English Premier League title race.
With the return of Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, optimism returns to Old Trafford.
An excellent performance in the emphatic 4-1 home win over Newcastle United yesterday morning (Singapore time) kept the Red Devils' hopes flickering.
The runaway success of Manchester City may continue to leave them off the pace.
Pep Guardiola's team also continue to be touted as the potential new "Invincibles", the first team to assume the mantle set by Arsenal's all-conquering team which went an entire league campaign unbeaten in 2003/04.
But the Manchester Derby at Old Trafford on Dec 10 now promises to be a fairer fight than previously anticipated.
Pogba has reawakened a United side that was both listless and unambitious in his absence over the past nine weeks.
It also coincided with a new-found mental fortitude which saw them respond to conceding an opening goal for the first time since February.
For all the suggestions that the France international was overpriced at £89 million (S$159.5m), it is increasingly looking like money well spent, as he assumes the role of catalyst for United at their most fluid and entertaining.
Pragmatism does not suit this team and Pogba, 24, has allowed Mourinho to again, in his own words, "let the horses run free".
It could not be better timed, too, with the countdown to City's visit in 20 days' time firmly underway and Romelu Lukaku finally back among the goals.
It is no coincidence that the towering striker returned to form at the same time as his on-field bonhomie with Pogba.
Chances spurned by Lukaku regularly set the tone in his previous seven scoreless outings, often undermining the good build-up work of Belgium's new leading all-time scorer.
Rounding off Newcastle's hammering in front of the Stretford End was a welcome confidence boost.
Lukaku's struggles were magnified during both his personal drought and United's downturn due to the distinct lack of service from his supporting cast.
TWO TO TANGO
Between Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic's roof-raising return from a lengthy cruciate knee injury, the 24-year-old now has at least two players to help ease that burden of responsibility.
Ibrahimovic's comeback as a 77th-minute substitute, two weeks ahead of his own ruthless schedule, allows Mourinho to again play to his side's strengths heading into the derby rather than opting for the ugly containment tactics which made his last meeting with Guardiola their most forgettable.
It may still take more than the self-proclaimed "lion", at 36, to reverse Manchester's power shift single-handedly but things are at least looking up again after a recent sticky spell.
Next month's Manchester Derby offers Mourinho an excellent opportunity to bridge the points gulf with Guardiola.
From experience, United know that an eight-point lead is not impossible to overhaul, even as late as the season's final weeks.
City did exactly that in the remaining seven games of the 2011/12 season, just as the title appeared to be heading to the Theatre of Dreams.
However, given that Guardiola does capitulation as easily as Mourinho deals in modesty, a repeat of a collapse of that magnitude remains unlikely.
United's task of cutting City's advantage down to size is still an unenviable one.
But at least the stars appear to be finally aligning for the Red Devils again.