Rewind a month or so and Manchester United fans were daring to dream of a first Premier League crown since 2013 – then Manchester City happened.
United’s city rivals have pretty much laughed at suggestions we could be set for an exciting title race, blowing away the league with 12 consecutive wins and all but securing their seventh top-flight English crown with three months of the season still to go.
While the Red Devils’ dreams of league glory may have gone up in smoke – and let’s be honest, they were feint dreams at that – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side still have plenty to play for, with Champions League qualification up for grabs, an FA Cup quarter-final to come and Europa League commitments to fulfil.
With United fighting on three fronts, Solskjaer is going to need to make use of his full squad as we enter the business end of the campaign, and he afforded some of his squad players some much-needed game-time in the thumping 4-0 win over Real Sociedad on Thursday night.
While players like Eric Bailly struggled in the first-leg clash, one man who needed no second invitation to stake his claim for a regular place in the United side was Daniel James.
The Welshman has been well and truly on the fringes of first-team action this season, being afforded just over half an hour of Premier League football since the turn of the year and making just five league starts all campaign.
There was an evident rustiness to the youngster’s first-half display, with a number of loose touches sullying what had actually been a valiant display full of energy and desire.
Ironically, it was one of said poor touches which seemed to spark a turning point in James’ night.
Having failed to control a through ball from Marcus Rashford, it bounced fortunately off James into the path of Bruno Fernandes who (obviously) applied the finish, and with an assist to his name the 23-year-old looked a totally different player.
Far from the winger struggling for confidence and unable to find his first touch, James suddenly looked lively and full of purpose, and he was unfortunate not to open his account for the night after his smart finish was ruled out after Mason Greenwood was adjudged to be offside in the build-up.
Not to be denied, the Wales international continued to work for the good of the team, and with just minutes remaining he bagged a richly-deserved goal, ignoring the cries from his teammates in the box before slotting through the legs of Sociedad goalkeeper Alex Remiro.
You won’t often see a 90th minute strike to put a team 4-0 up celebrated with so much vigour, but the relief on the youngster’s face was clear for all to see. After a tricky start he’d stuck to his task and got the goal his performance warranted.
United are going to need their full squad to perform to the best of their ability if they’re to continue to fight on three front this season, and given more regular time in the first team, James could prove to be a key player as the Red Devils enter the home straight.