The ride ahead, with Ole at the wheel
It has been some six years since Sir Alex bid adieu to Manchester United. He left a winner, with a project spanning two and a half decades culminating at the top of British football. In the six years since, United have fumbled like a man in the dark, experimenting with different managers. None of them really seemed to understand the way United operate, and just how special a football club it is. Nor was the recruitment off the pitch focused and driven towards a definite goal, it seemed scatter gun and off the cuff.
However, the last three months have seen United revitalized on the pitch, playing with an unabashed swagger that has been missing for a long time. The club seems to be alive and fresh with hope and belief. The man responsible for all this, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, has just been announced as United’s full-time manager for the next three years. But while news media is abuzz with talk of players United could look to sign, one must not forget that they still have a lot to play for this season. They have a Champions League date with Barcelona to look forward to and have to go full steam ahead to secure the top four finish they crave in the league. Here, we analyse the month ahead for United, and the trip they will take with Ole at the Wheel.
As Solskjær described it, United play the ‘best of the rest’ in their coming two fixtures in the league, against Watford at home and Wolves away. While United should return to winning ways after their recent blips against Wolves, the fixture at the Molineux will be a test of United’s mental reserves and bottle. Fielding close to a full strength team, United were blown away by Wolves in the FA Cup tie between the pair and will need to show a lot more cohesion in their play to overcome the threat Wolves pose. The fixture at the Molineux could be a massive three points for United if they can secure them.
Then, the proverbial mountain beckons, with the first leg of their European Quarter Final against Barcelona. United will have a week to prepare for the Catalans, as they do not play the weekend following this one domestically. United’s squad have not really experienced such huge European ties, and this is a first for the likes of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. That lack of experience might just play into Barcelona’s hands, although United’s belief will be sky high after their exploits in Paris. Sandwiched in between the home and away legs is a home fixture to West Ham. United will be odds on to win that game, but Solskjær might have to ring the changes after what is sure to have been an energy-sapping, mentally draining affair against Barcelona.
United close the month with three challenging fixtures, away at Everton, followed by a sequence at home against perennial rivals Chelsea and Manchester City. The latter two games are both likely to be massive six-pointers. United will have to beat Chelsea in the race for the top four, and cannot lose to City like they habitually have in the post-Sir Alex era. There has been a lot of talk that a United win against City might help a Liverpudlian title bid, but United cannot afford to worry or think of all that.
Their sole prerogative must be to earn a top-four spot. Barring the results at the Molineux and Emirates recently, United’s players have actually enjoyed their travels more than the fixtures at home. Old Trafford’s support is famous, but it can also breed nervousness in players when games do not go to plan. It is essential that the coaching staff, fans and players are all reading off the same hymn sheet in the games against Chelsea and City.
All said and done, United have a terrific squad of talented players. The likes of Romelu Lukaku, Rashford, Martial and Jesse Lingard, all doubts during the international break, could feature against Watford. With Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera already restored to their starting roles, United look in good health. They will need players to stay fit over this next phase and will hope that their injury travails are at an end. The challenge for Solskjær is to get United into the top four for the start of next season.
He cannot be faulted if he fails, he has already done a marvellous job of reinvigorating a club that seemed dead and buried. But if he succeeds, he will have truly worked a miracle. He will have climbed a mountain and planted his flag there. That Manchester United are a force alive and well and intend to scale greater heights in the three seasons ahead, his shining reign.
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