By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Seventeen Premier League games into last season Manchester United were 24 points adrift of arch-rivals Liverpool but seemingly light years away from a title challenge.
Remarkably, especially considering the way United began this campaign, they travel to Anfield leading Juergen Klopp's side at the top of the table by three points.
It is the first time since Alex Ferguson's last season in charge in 2013 that the 20-time English champions have topped the table after New Year's Day.
Whatever happens on Sunday, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has given United fans what they feel is their divine right; a team capable of ruling the roost.
So what has sparked the remarkable transformation?
UNITED HAVE GOT THEIR SWAGGER BACK
Under Ferguson United collected sackloads of silverware with style, panache and a street-fighting instinct when required.
With his retirement went United's blueprint. David Moyes inherited a fading team, Louis van Gaal won an FA Cup but fans despised his cautious tactics and Jose Mourinho, backed by a huge transfer budget, delivered a Europa League, a League Cup and a Premier League runners-up spot but compared to swashbuckling neighbours Manchester City, United were prosaic.
Solskjaer, who replaced Mourinho, has endured criticism but patiently gone about restoring the club's swagger.
Still a work in progress, Solskjaer has made United hard to beat but also capable of attacking in the United way.
When United thumped Leeds 6-2 on Dec. 20 it was the seventh time a Solskjaer side had scored five or more goals.
In the 302 games from Moyes's appointment to Mourinho's departure, it happened twice.
BRUNO FERNANDES PROVIDES THE SPARK
United's transfer policy has been erratic but the former Sporting Lisbon midfielder has been a masterstroke. His form this season has been the catalyst for United's surge.
Two months ago United were languishing in 15th spot, nine points behind Liverpool, and when they trailed at Everton the vultures were circling Solskjaer.
Fernandes's brace helped United hit back to win 3-1 and they have not looked back in the Premier League since, winning nine and drawing two of their last 11 games with the Portuguese grabbing eight goals and six assists in that streak.
What is more, Fernandes has provided Marcus Rashford with the kind of service he craves.
UNITED DIGGING IN WHEN NEEDED
Ferguson's side's weren't afraid to win ugly and Solskjaer has re-installed that same mentality.
Rashford scored a barely-deserved 90th minute winner against Wolves recently, United then edged out a vibrant Aston Villa side and this week slugged out a 1-0 win at Burnley.
None of those displays were pretty but winning when not firing on all cylinders is a priceless habit for title winners.
"You cannot go around and think you can just fake your way to being part of this team," Solskjaer said recently.
PLUGGING THE DEFENSIVE LEAKS
United conceded 11 goals in their first three league games, including a humiliating six at home to Tottenham Hotspur.
They have leaked only 13 in their next 14. The team defends from front to back and captain Harry Maguire looks to have found his ideal defensive partner in Eric Bailly.
POGBA FINALLY SHOWING CONSISTENCY
When the Frenchman puts his mind to it and is fully fit he can boss a midfield. Those days have been in short supply but the signs are he is now on message and delivering on a regular basis -- as when volleying the winner at Burnley. With Scott McTominay, Donny Van de Beek, Nemanja Matic and Fred, United are blessed with midfield options.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)