Jesse Lingard says his friendly rivalry with Marcus Rashford will be the driving force behind Manchester United’s bid to climb into the Premier League’s top four as they prepare to face Fulham on Saturday.
United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has earned praise for inspiring his side’s 10-match unbeaten run since replacing the sacked Jose Mourinho in December.
With victories in nine of those games, fifth-placed United have surged back into the race to qualify for next season’s Champions League via a top-four finish.
United sit just two points behind Chelsea and can end this weekend in fourth place if they beat struggling Fulham at Craven Cottage and Maurizio Sarri’s team lose at Manchester City on Sunday.
One of Solskjaer’s most significant contributions following his arrival from Molde has been putting a smile back on the faces of his players.
Many of United’s stars had feuded with the acerbic Mourinho and their performances dipped as a result.
Paul Pogba is the most obvious case, the France midfielder struggling badly under Mourinho but quickly showing his class in United’s revival.
Lingard and Rashford were also reported to have feared their careers could stall due to Mourinho’s volatile temperament.
Freed from their previous manager’s shackles, the England internationals have been in fine form since Solskjaer took over as interim boss.
With nine goals between them since the Norwegian arrived, the good friends have given United’s attack a more menacing look in recent weeks.
Rashford scored the first goal of the Solskjaer reign against Cardiff, while Lingard struck twice in that 5-1 rout.
Having netted the winner in United’s 1-0 victory at Leicester last weekend, Rashford has now scored in six of his side’s eight league games under Solskjaer.
– Ranieri praise –
And Lingard believes his good-natured competition with Rashford, including goal and assist targets for each player, has helped bring the best out of them.
“Marcus and me have been setting targets for each other to challenge ourselves,” Lingard said.
“Obviously it’s different aims, maybe in certain games it’s how many shots, or this many touches in a game.
“It’s just different random things, just to make you think and it’s to kind of push each other because you want your friend to be successful as well.
“I’m not going to go into the amount of numbers involved because then everyone will know.”
United’s renaissance has sparked hopes of a memorable end to what had been turbulent season.
As well as competing for a top-four berth, United host Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of the Champions League last 16 on Tuesday and face Chelsea in the FA Cup fifth round later this month.
If Solskjaer can lead United to silverware and finish in the top four it might be hard for the Glazer family and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to ignore his credentials to land the manager’s post on a permanent basis.
Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino and former Real Madrid chief Zinedine Zidane were the bookmakers’ top contenders following Mourinho’s exit.
But Solskjaer has already won many admirers with his astute handling of a difficult situation and Fulham manager Claudio Ranieri claims the former United striker has already proved he deserves the job.
“At the moment he deserves it. He’s shown all the players are with him. Manchester United’s mentality has changed. Why not?” said Ranieri, whose side are second bottom after one win in their past five league games.
“I remember him as a player, against Chelsea. He was a fantastic player. His career’s open, and I wish him all the best.”