Manchester United’s title hopes may be over, but Victor Lindelof’s long-awaited adaptation to the physical nature of the Premier League has provided the foundation for a potentially successful end to the season.
Jose Mourinho’s side head to Crystal Palace on Monday night (at 3am Cambodian time) trailing Premier League leaders Manchester City by 16 points.
But although City are out of sight, United could still bring home silverware in the Champions League and FA Cup.
They face Sevilla in the Champions League last 16 second leg on March 13, having drawn 0-0 in Spain, and host Brighton in the FA Cup quarterfinals four days later.
If United are to enjoy a trophy-filled climax, Lindelof could find himself unexpectedly cast as a key figure in Mourinho’s plans – something that looked unthinkable in his early months in Manchester.
After joining United from Benfica for £31 million ($42 million) in June, Lindelof endured a difficult start with his new club.
His shaky performances in preseason and in training convinced Mourinho to limit the centre-back to only three appearances in the first two months of the campaign – and those came in the League Cup and two undemanding European fixtures.
When Lindelof came off the bench as a first half substitute at Huddersfield, United conceded twice in a shock league defeat.
But gradually the 23-year-old began to find his feet and, playing alongside Chris Smalling at the heart of the United defence, he has started their last three games with notable assurance.
Mourinho’s men have conceded only once in those fixtures, which included the Champions League stalemate at Sevilla and an important win over Chelsea.
Lindelof already feels a better player after less than a season in England and his confidence is rising as he shows that development on the pitch.
“I think it’s been good. I think everywhere you go, it’s always going to take some time to adapt but I feel good,” he said.
“Every day I work out and I work hard to try to help the team. I’m always trying to be myself on the pitch and trying to do what I think I can do well.
“Of course, I think I’ve become a better player since I came here. I’m just trying to improve on those things that I’m already good at. I think I develop every day.
“As a player, you always want to play games and that’s what I’ve been doing over the last few games and I’m very happy that I can help the team on the pitch.”
Without a win in five matches after last weekend’s loss to Tottenham, Palace are mired firmly in the fight to avoid relegation.
But Palace boss Roy Hodgson is adamant his team are in a much better place than when they were crushed 4-0 by United early in his reign.
Less than three weeks after Hodgson’s appointment, Palace lost at Old Trafford to leave them with seven defeats from seven games, having not scored a single goal.
Since then the former England coach has lifted them away from the bottom three before a series of injuries sent them plunging back into trouble.
“I certainly didn’t know that we could recover from seven matches with no points and no goals,” Hodgson said.
“That we would rally round to get two or three points clear a few weeks ago. I couldn’t have predicted that, and the players have made big strides forward in becoming a better team and harder to beat.
“I am certain we can give a better account of ourselves than we did at Old Trafford.”