At long last Axel Tuanzebe is almost ready to restart his season after returning to first team training.
He has travelled to Belgium for the game with Club Brugge and while unlikely to start, it is a step in the right direction.
Tuanzebe has had a hugely frustrating season after entering it in the perfect position to succeed.
After impressing in pre-season he had been in contention to start United’s opener before a late £80 million move for Harry Maguire.
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer then chose to ease Tuanzebe into the team slowly and it was working well before his pre-game injury against Liverpool.
Tuanzebe had been drafted into start as part of a back three, before getting injured in the warm-up.
Then he returned, played, six minutes of football across two substitute appearances, before finally getting a start against Colchester in December and picking up a hip injury which has kept him sidelined since.
Tuanzebe’s bad luck has seen his advantage over Eric Bailly disappear.
Had he stayed fit, Tuanzebe had half a season without serious challengers to compete for Victor Lindelöf’s place or to establish himself as part of a back three.
Eric Bailly narrowly won the race to return to be fit and he made the most of it on Monday night, starring against Chelsea.
Now Tuanzebe has three top quality teammates to try and overcome, not two.
Still has a great chance
Despite this, Tuanzebe has a couple of factors in his favour, the first being that he is really talented.
Solskjaer likes him too, even handing him the captaincy in the Carabao Cup game earlier in the season.
If he does not get a start beforehand, a comeback date against Derby in the FA Cup at the start of March is very likely.
Eric Bailly’s own injury record means he won’t be over exposed to twice a week games, and Tuanzebe could be given an equal shot to stake his claim.
The superb performance from Bailly on Monday gives him a high standard to match, and to be fair, the Ivorian faces a tall order to keep that level of consistency.
United are fortunate to have four top centre-backs with Bailly, Tuanzebe, Maguire and Lindelöf. Luke Shaw’s growth at the position shouldn’t be ignored either.
The first step for Tuanzebe after getting fit again is staying fit. After that he has to trust he will get his chances and perform well.
He has the talent to make up for lost time, and he needs to make sure this still becomes a season full of progress rather than one he looks back on and views as an opportunity missed.
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