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Lingard continues to show his worth as Man United grind out wins

Manchester United's winning machine grinds on, even if the laser blue elephant in the room is still there to temper the mood. Sunday's narrow victory at West Brom was the sixth in seven Premier League games and that would be title-winning form in most seasons, not that United are playing like champions very often.

It's true they have hit four goals in a game eight times and there have been some thrilling matches -- Arsenal away, Newcastle at home, Watford away, CSKA Moscow away -- but most are efficient, pragmatic wins. And while that's far better than the home draws of last season, performances pale compared with those of Manchester City. So be it, for now. United are comfortable in second; they were sixth a year ago.

Jose Mourinho will continue to make improvements, bring in better players and get more from those already at the club. Seven of the starting XI on Sunday were at Old Trafford when Sir Alex Ferguson retired four-and-a-half years ago, which is hardly a ringing endorsement of the transfer policy since then. Another on the pitch, West Brom captain Jonny Evans, is a lifelong United fan who came through the club's youth system and should not have been sold, let alone so cheaply, in 2015.

With 12 goals conceded, United have the joint-best defence in the league, yet that back line looked nervy toward the end as the Baggies went for an equaliser in front of another raucous away following. Yet United got the win and, given the intensity of matches -- December alone features nine games -- victories are to be commended, especially when they're achieved without Paul Pogba.

Nobody expects United to win the league, nor is anyone surprised when Mourinho or any of his players state they have not given up. What else can they say? Newcastle were 12 points clear at the start of 1996, yet were still overhauled and reds would love it if that happened with City.

But it's not going to happen, even if a rush to crown Pep Guardiola's side as greats before they've won a trophy, before they've survived massive end-of-season European Cup ties, among huge league and FA Cup games, is premature. Real Madrid won five trophies in 2017; Manchester United two. City won none.

Mourinho should also be credited for continuing to give chances to homegrown, young players. When he took over, there were those who thought he would not but he has, even if they don't always deliver. Jesse Lingard is one such player.

Raised in Warrington, 10 miles across the Cheshire Plain from United's Carrington training ground, he didn't start any of the opening five league games, which made him concerned for his future. When he did get an opportunity, United were beaten at Huddersfield and he was criticised.

But fortunes can turn quickly in football and Lingard, who celebrated his 25th birthday in a splurge of social media posts last week, has started the last five league games and scored in each of the last three played away from Old Trafford. If he keeps it up, then let him Milly Rock on any block.

Mourinho has improved him and United are better with him around than not. Meanwhile, Lingard's teammates like him and see a talented team player, who is full of running and never gives up. He's slight but brave and was quick to jump to the support of Marcus Rashford after his great friend clashed with West Brom's Ahmed Hegazi.

Lingard is also a very good finisher and has scored seven times in all competitions this season, with his best coming in a League Cup win at Swansea. In league play, his tally of four goals and three assists places him alongside Alexis Sanchez, Eden Hazard and Sadio Mane; Lingard has played fewer minutes than all three.

He did well in a central role behind lead striker Romelu Lukaku, a position he played as an emerging youngster, at The Hawthorns. Lingard is not Lionel Messi, but that doesn't mean he should be a fans' scapegoat -- as he has been -- when things go wrong.

This working-class kid has come from a challenging background and overcome persistent doubts that he wouldn't be big enough to make it at Old Trafford, to score for the team he grew up supporting in the 2016 FA Cup final, the 2016 Community Shield and the 2017 League Cup final.

"He's not one of the first young players who you look at for flashy pieces of skill," Gary Neville told me last year. "But his understanding of the game, of where to run, where to take the ball and his desire and application in training; he looks like a Manchester United player to me."

Lingard and Pogba are the only players from United's 2011 FA Youth Cup-winning team, who are still at the club. But while Pogba was always viewed as having a big future, it took patience for Lingard to flourish within the youth set-up, as well intelligent use of the loan system that saw him have spells at Leicester, Birmingham, Brighton and Derby. All of which made him a player fit to wear the red shirt.

Mourinho thinks Lingard's best position is either playing off the front man or cutting in from the left on his right foot. Would he continue to feature as much if United signed, say, Antoine Griezmann? Probably not, but Lingard has heard doubts before and is proving the cynics wrong.

Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.

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