Man United’s Solskjaer faces up to reality as Barcelona roll into town
The Norwegian has given his creative players licence to attack, with Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford let off the leash
London — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer enjoyed a charmed life as interim Manchester United manager but Barcelona’s visit to Old Trafford on Wednesday will show him the scale of the task he faces as the new full-time boss.
The Norwegian was rewarded with a three-year deal after dramatically reviving United’s fortunes since taking caretaker charge in December, lifting them back into contention for a top-four place and transforming the mood at the club.
The highlight of his reign so far was a dramatic 3-1 away victory over Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 in the Champions League, which enabled United to overturn a 2-0 first-leg defeat to reach the quarterfinals on away goals.
Solskjaer has given his creative players licence to attack, with Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford let off the leash to devastating effect. But some of the gloss has come off in recent weeks, with three defeats in four matches badly denting United’s chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League and dumping them out of the FA Cup.
Solskjaer, who famously scored the winning goal for United against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final in Barcelona, was upbeat after drawing the Spanish league leaders in the quarterfinals in March, before he was confirmed as the new long-term boss.
“We want these games against the biggest clubs and the biggest teams. We had the final against them in 2009 and 2011 [both of which Barca won] and the semifinal in 2008 when Scholesy [Paul Scholes] scored,” Solskjaer said. “It’s these games our fans and this club crave. We are looking forward to this one.”
Worryingly for Solskjaer, though, some of United’s familiar failings under Jose Mourinho have returned to haunt them in the weeks since the draw was made.
They were unfortunate to lose at Arsenal but appeared short of inspiration in losing twice to Wolves in the FA Cup and Premier League, while even Solskjaer admitted they did not deserve their solitary win since he was given the permanent job as Watford enjoyed the better of the chances in a 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford.
Solskjaer had a free ride when he took over from Mourinho, with morale at a low ebb and the club 11 points off the top four. Despite recent hiccups, he has had notable success in his short time at the club and ultimately has his sights set higher than finishing in the top four.
“You’ve got to aim high,” he told ESPN. “You cannot aim too low at this club. You’ve got to aim to win titles.
“When I came back here as the manager I thought a lot about what makes a winning team. What does it really take to win on the biggest stage? I’m not one to sit back, rest on my laurels.”
The 46-year-old will probably be forgiven if United fall short against a Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona. But if he fails to reverse the mini-slump and United suffer a heavy defeat to the Spanish champions, there is a danger the season could peter out and momentum could be lost.
Questions will be asked as to whether United were too quick to put their trust in a likeable leader and whether Solskjaer has the profile needed to bring in the top-level recruits United need, particularly in defence, to become serious Premier League and European challengers again.
But he will lead his team out at Old Trafford on Wednesday for their first Champions League quarterfinal since 2014 with the same never-say-die attitude he had as a player.
“We’ve got a chance, it’s going to be a tough one. We’ve got a mountain to climb, but we’ve climbed a few mountains before,” said Solskjaer.