CHAMPIONS LEAGUE Q’FINAL
*Pique charges teammates to kill off United’s comeback dream
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer enjoyed a charmed life as interim Manchester United manager but Barcelona’s visit to Old Trafford this evening 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 last month, 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.
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.
Meanwhile, Gerard Pique has said that Barcelona must learn from last season’s Champions League collapse against Roma and be wary of Manchester United’s powers of recovery ahead of the clash.
Defender Pique, who was part of the United squad that won the European Cup in 2008 before returning to Catalonia, was on the winning side as Barca beat United in Champions League finals in 2009 and 2011.
“The game against PSG is a great example. They (PSG) were better, but you cannot let United off the hook because they have a great team and a great history as they showed in Paris,” Pique said on Tuesday.
“We learned (from Roma) that things happen, even if it seemed unimaginable that they will.
“We learned that you cannot let an opponent back into a tie if they are not killed off. That will help us for facing a team like United.
“If at any point we can kill off the tie, we have to do it.”
Tasked with derailing Barca’s bid for a third treble since 2009 and stopping an in-form Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, United will be cast in the role of underdog just as they were in the last round.
The appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as the new permanent manager of the English giants has coincided with a dip in form, with United losing three of their four games since winning in Paris.