New leaders United appear to have rediscovered their swagger
We'll know United's true credentials after visits to the Emirates, Goodison Park and the derby clash
It was always a matter of time before Manchester United's true incarnation revealed itself.
Ordinarily, surging to the English Premier League's summit would have warranted little, if any, fanfare. Their latest ascent, however, carries a greater significance.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson delivered an unparalleled 20th title, 888 days ago, they have previously held that position three times.
On each occasion, it lasted little more than 24 hours.
This time though, it seems different; the hunted have become the hunters, displacing those that usurped them during the previous two seasons.
Leading from the front, this time on their own terms, Louis van Gaal's side appear to have finally discovered their swagger.
With Manchester City, previously striding unopposed to the crown, faltering, and Chelsea's defence of their crown continuing to nosedive, the Old Trafford faithful have every reason to be bullish that the glory days are set to return, and perhaps even dream of a title in only van Gaal's second season at the helm.
But such is the precarious nature of life at the business end of the Premiership that United are still susceptible to the fates which have recently befallen their petrodollar peers.
City, wonderfully christened the "noisy neighbours" by the irascible Ferguson, sit just one point adrift, ahead of next month's Manchester Derby.
The challenges preceding that Oct 25 showdown will determine whether the Red Devils' consolidation plans carry genuine conviction.
Wayne Rooney's rediscovered Midas touch in the slick 3-0 win over Sunderland last Saturday was perfectly timed ahead of what is arguably van Gaal's most testing period of the new campaign.
He scored to end a goal drought in the Premier League of nearly 1,000 minutes, but what was even more important was his general play, picking out passes, trying to free his fellow attackers and showing signs of a growing understanding with a young, muscular and effervescent Anthony Martial.
The litany of records at the England captain's mercy have appeared to be a millstone around his neck since previously finding the net, in April.
He stands just 19 goals short of becoming United's all-time scorer; a figure which, if breached this season, could well fire them to a 21st title.
Van Gaal justifiably is under no illusions of the difficulties staying the distance in arguably the world's most competitive league.
United's dominance has been made all the more difficult since Sheikh Mansour and Roman Abramovich emerged as powerful forces in English football.
But Mansour's City are limping at the moment and Abramovich's Chelsea are a pale shadow of last season's title winners.
United have strength in depth and they are growing in confidence.
Seeing off Wolfsburg on Thursday morning (Singapore time) will ensure that they revive their bid to progress into the Round of 16 in the Champions League, and avoiding a continental hangover in Sunday's tasty visit to the Emirates Stadium will be the first litmus test of their title credentials on the home front.
Arsenal suddenly look like contenders, again, in what is looking like a see-saw battle for domestic supremacy.
It has, as van Gaal put it, become a rat race.
Quite clearly, United have proven to be quicker out of the traps than their rivals, including Wenger's inconsistent side.
Of course, that will count for little should van Gaal's men come unstuck when one of English football's fiercest feuds resumes.
Equally difficult challenges lie beyond the international break.
Visits to Everton have become an unpleasant footnote in United's seasons, with their three previous visits to Goodison Park all ending in defeat.
A fourth would defy van Gaal's claim that his side are capable of overcoming any of their contemporaries and threaten to render United's apparent revival stuck in transition for another 12 months at least.
Right now, they are top-four certainties. Over the next month, we will know exactly what United are capable of.
"A club like United want to fight for everything — the league, the Champions League and both the cup competitions. We want to get ourselves back to winning silverware."
— Man United’s Ashley Young, confident that they can maintain their fine form
MAN UNITED’S OCT FIXTURES
- Oct 1: Wolfsburg (Home, Champions League)
- Oct 4: Arsenal (Away, EPL)
- Oct 17: Everton (A, EPL)
- Oct 22: CSKA Moscow (A, Champions League)
- Oct 25: Man City (H, EPL)
- Oct 29: Middlesbrough (H, League Cup)
Van Gaal delighted with Devils
Louis van Gaal declared himself a "happy coach", after his Manchester United team climbed to the top of the table with a 3-0 win over Sunderland last Saturday.
Manchester City's defeat at Tottenham opened the door for United to move to the summit and they grasped the opportunity, thanks to goals from Memphis Depay, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney, who ended a 999-minute Premier League goal drought.
Depay ended Sunderland's stubborn resistance by converting Mata's square pass and, after Rooney had netted in the first minute of the second half, there was no way back for the Black Cats, who conceded a final goal in the last minute of normal time.
"Last season at this stage, we were 13th in the league, so I'm a happy coach," the United manager said.
Van Gaal has had his doubters during his 14-month spell in charge, but United are now top of the table for the first time since they beat Swansea 4-1 in David Moyes' first game in charge on Aug 18, 2013.
United's stay at the top of the pile then, just like Moyes' tenure, was a brief one - they were knocked off the top the following day - but van Gaal will be hoping his team can remain there for the rest of the season.
The Dutchman admits that will not be easy, however.
"To continue (at the top) is very difficult in this league," van Gaal added.
"But it is better than last year when we had 13 points after 10 matches and you have to chase.
"This year it is a big difference, because you can start better from the top than the bottom."
Depay's first Premier League strike was the pick of the goals.
The Dutchman wandered free of his marker to tap in, after Daley Blind had picked out Mata with a peach of a long pass.
The fact that Depay scored in the fourth minute of first-half injury time was appropriate, according to van Gaal, because he felt Sunderland were guilty of time-wasting.
He said: "I was very happy with the goal in extra-time, because they punished themselves.
"They were always wasting time and the referee was not reacting to that."
Sunderland manager Dick Advocaat admits much work must be done for his side to drag themselves off the bottom and out of the relegation zone.
"We have a lot of games to go, but we have to think about how we can change things in the squad," he said. - PA Sport.
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