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Man United form improves as transfer talks swirls but Man City still far away

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Mourinho relaxed over Sanchez move (2:04)

Jose Mourinho insists he is relaxed over whether Man United sign Alexis Sanchez or not as he knows the forward has a number of options and could stay at Arsenal. (2:04)

Twenty-two years ago, Manchester United lay second in the Premier League after 23 games, 12 points behind the leaders. Back in 1996, Sir Alex Ferguson's side would overhaul Newcastle United to win the title. Today, United are second, 12 points behind the leaders after 23 games. But don't start to think the impossible is possible: It's not going to happen.

December was tough month for United fans and not just because of dropped league points and Carabao Cup elimination vs. Bristol City. It was the month in which supporters reluctantly accepted that Manchester City are the better team and are likely to win the league title. And that's that.

Let's not go back into areas of false hope but this is football, where passion, emotion and the irrational collide. If City drop more points there is nobody better to irritate and get under the skin and into the head of Pep Guardiola than Jose Mourinho. He's done it before and he'll do it again.

While the two men get on better than in the past, there are senior people at City, including some on the coaching staff, who think the British public is tiring of Mourinho. They also wouldn't be surprised if United's manager wasn't at Old Trafford next season, since they don't think he'll be able to stand staying in Guardiola's shadow. Mourinho has a very different opinion to this.

Mourinho needs no more motivating, but he's got his side winning again after a dreadful end to 2017. Three games in the New Year have brought three victories although, while Jan. 1 win at Everton was first class, beating second-tier Derby County at home in the FA Cup and seeing off a Stoke side that has conceded 50 league goals -- more than any team in Europe's top five leagues -- were hardly the toughest tests.

Stoke are struggling and, though they have a fine record against United at home, they have a dreadful one at Old Trafford, where they haven't won in 18 visits. A win for the club that tried and failed to tempt Espanyol coach Quique Sanchez Flores to take their open manager's job last week would have been as rare as a left-footed shot from Antonio Valencia, but the Ecuadorian right-back opened the scoring in just that manner on Monday.

United look comfortable in second -- they are three points clear of Chelsea and Liverpool -- and that represents progress compared to recent seasons. Victory against Stoke also brought a 13th clean sheet from 23 league games, despite a rotating central-defensive pairing that has drawn continual conjecture because it's so unsettled.

There are other positives, such as Luke Shaw starting seven of the last nine games. As his confidence and level of performance have increased, so United's need for a new left-back has diminished. Shaw has played 623 minutes of first-team football in the last month, having logged just 48 in the first three months of the season.

Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial shared the man-of-the-match honour against Stoke, with their attacking combinations a continual threat. United are much better with Pogba in the side; despite missing ten league games because of injuries or suspension, he has nine assists in the league. No player has more. He performs better in a more advanced role and is more involved in goals, be it scoring or making them.

Beyond events on the pitch, transfer speculation will continue to dominate the United world and the Alexis Sanchez story is the biggest around. The Chilean forward would be welcomed by fans because he's a very good player; he'd command stupidly high wages, yet such is the inflated nature of the transfer market after Neymar's move to Paris Saint-Germain, Sanchez would appear relatively cheap.

He'd be an asset in the Champions League and, if United can land a second punch by signing a player coveted by City, that would do no harm either. Dimitar Berbatov and Robin van Persie had no regrets about their moves Old Trafford when they had a choice between red and blue, though City are stronger now.

Don't expect to see protests from fans if Henrikh Mkhitaryan leaves as part of the deal, either. The Armenian midfielder has enjoyed some good moments for United and started this season well, but he's underwhelmed as much as Shinji Kagawa, a previous signing from Borussia Dortmund.

It's a shame for Mkhitaryan is clearly a very good footballer, something Mourinho picked out when he signed him and which became apparent as soon as his first preseason game at Wigan in 2016, when Mkhitaryan ran at defenders and showed the awareness which made him player of the year among his fellow professionals in the Bundesliga.

But he started his first season in England with barely a chance to play because he wasn't considered ready for the Premier League, before finishing it as one of the best players in a successful Europa League run; his goal in the final vs. Ajax was one of 11 in all competitions. He also started this season well, before his form dipped.

It's for Mourinho to decide his future, but one could understand any caution. Mkhitaryan is not flavour of the month and no player has been as ineffective and anonymous as he in the games that led to his fall from grace.