“The last time I was this excited about a United youngster was, well, you can go right back to Paul Scholes and David Beckham for that. As for Ronaldo I can see the similarities. Everybody goes on about his pace but he’s also got unbelievable feet for someone so quick. He’s not small either and I like how his manager has coaxed him in gently and not put all the responsibility onto him straight away.”
“He’s looking absolutely fantastic and now that he’s back playing in his favourite position of centre-forward he’s started to score goals as well. So I can see similarities and if he becomes half the player Ronaldo is then we’re all in for a treat.”
The reason for the 18 year old’s recent switch to centre-forward is of course due to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s injury that will deprive United of their Swedish maestro for the duration of the season. Sharpe however, sees a significant silver lining to the otherwise cruel blow.
“When you look on paper at the amount of goals he’s scored you could say the top four place is now in danger. But he (Ibrahimovic) does slow things down a bit and if Marcus Rashford is given a go as a number nine he could cause as many problems, if not more, than Ibrahimovic does. In the handful of games that are left, Rashford is more than capable of scoring the goals to secure that top four spot.”
“Ibra is a big miss in that he raises the standard of the team around him when he plays but he can still have a big influence in the dressing room and the pace of Rashford and the younger lads might work to United’s advantage.”
As for Ibra’s future, that remains clouded in serious doubt following this week’s confirmation of cruciate knee-ligament damage that will surely rule the striking legend out for a lengthy spell. With a contract extension presently unsigned somewhere in Ed Woodward’s office, Sharpe is pragmatic as to United’s best strategy.
"Clouded future". Zlatan Ibrahimovic
“It’s a tricky one because at 36 when you’ve just done your cruciate that’s a twelve month out job. So Ibra is not going to be looking to come back until February of next year. That’s a long wait and he’ll be on a lot of money. For a one-year contract is that wait worth it when in the summer there’s every chance that the manager will go out and buy a big money striker anyway?”
“It’s a tough one for the club and I understand just to dump him when he gets injured is a harsh thing to do but this is not showfriends, its showbusiness. The club have got to do what is right for them and if that means letting Ibrahimovic go then I’m sure that’s what they’re going to do.”
Precisely who that ‘big money striker’ will be only time will tell but we can be certain in today’s climate the sums will be mind-blowing. This week saw the Reds’ neighbours and closest rivals Manchester City reportedly pull out of a deal for Monaco’s superstar-in-the-making Kylian Mbappe after being quoted an astonishing $120m. Would United baulk at such a figure given their need to replace not only Ibrahimovic but also, possibly, Wayne Rooney this summer?
“If Mbappe is going to score goals and help sell hundreds of thousands of shirts around the world they’re probably not going to lose out on the deal anyway. With Jose Mourinho now they make a statement and being one of the biggest clubs in the world they have to pay transfer fees in accordance with that. So to buy the best in the world, to be the best in the world you’re going to have to pay that fee. I don’t think they’d even flinch to be honest.”
For the thirteen time Premier League champions to have any hope of landing such big fish it is essential they can offer Champions League football next term – “Griezmann won’t be an option if United miss out on Europe” – which leads us to the present and this Thursday’s momentously important derby, a combustible ninety minutes that could conceivably decide each club’s fate for the foreseeable future.
Summer target? Kilian Mbappe
Having won three league titles during his eight years at Old Trafford – not to mention being involved in several all-Manchester skirmishes – Sharpe is well aware of what qualities are needed as the finish line approaches and the must-win games come thick and fast.
“United have got to keep the pressure on now. It’s squeaky bum time and a lot of things can happen. So they have to hold their nerve because it’s not about performances anymore, it’s about results. United have got a really tough run-in playing against the biggest teams but they’re renowned for pulling off results against them so there is no reason why they can’t do it. This derby game though is absolutely vital.”
“The way United played against Chelsea last week is just the way they need to against City. They played high and denied Chelsea any chance of gaining momentum or confidence. City’s defence is their weak link so United need to get at them from the word go and don’t allow them to get into any kind of stride.”
Though the magnitude of this game is enthralling for neutrals there is no question that bigger and better things were expected of both Manchester giants this year. Can either Guardiola or Mourinho really be satisfied with their opening seasons in charge?
“In a private conversation Pep and Jose would both admit that they’ve under-achieved a little. Pep would have been expecting to challenge for the league and Jose – as good as he has done – will be looking at those home draws this year and thinking if they’d won half of them they’d be up there with Chelsea. He’ll be disappointed with his home record.”
Perhaps then being the away side on Thursday evening is a blessing in disguise for a club Sharpe clearly still holds dear. It certainly places even more demands on their blue neighbours who simply dare not miss out on football’s holy grail.
“Unlike United who have the Europa League still to play for City are in the last chance saloon. This is their one and only chance and they’re not a million miles away from United with Everton and Arsenal still chasing too. So City will definitely be feeling the pressure and with Pep experiencing his first season in his managerial life without a trophy it is imperative they get top four.”
Lee Sharpe’s quickfire questions
Score prediction for derby
2-1 to United
Who will be the Premier League’s leading goalscorer?
Who will win the Champions League?
Lee Sharpe's greatest goals for Man-U