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exclusive Solskjaer’s Manchester United future hangs on Europa League decider – but there are no guarantees against Villarreal

High expectation levels put United boss under constant pressure


Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer during a training session before the Europa League final, at Gdansk Stadium, Poland.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer during a training session before the Europa League final, at Gdansk Stadium, Poland.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer during a training session before the Europa League final, at Gdansk Stadium, Poland.

What constitutes success for Manchester United? It’s a question they will need to ask after Wednesday night’s Europa League final against Villarreal and the truth must be that sliding expectations have helped to ensure they are within touching distance of what could be described as a successful season.

Back in the days when Alex Ferguson was ruling the roost at Old Trafford, he might have got rid of half of his team if they finished 12 points behind the Premier League champions and were kicked out of the Champions League in the group stages.

Yet times have changed and United are not the force they once were, so Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could justifiably claim he has made progress if he wins his first trophy as United manager in Gdansk on Wednesday evening.

I have to hold my hands up and admit Solskjaer has done better than I expected at United, as I believed he would struggle to stay in the job for as long as he has.

There is no denying that he has ridden his luck at times, with United’s brilliant attacking players winning them games when they have not played well.

United have been dreadful in the opening 45 minutes of a lot of games this season, but they seem to have an ability to flick the switch and score two or three quick goals that blow teams away.

They have also been outstanding on their travels this season, winning 12 and drawing the other seven of their 19 Premier League games away from home.

It’s a fantastic unbeaten record, yet I wonder whether they have benefitted from the absence of fans in some of those games.

Most Premier League clubs view the visit of United and Liverpool as big moments in their season and the home fans tend to turn up the volume for those games, but Solskjaer’s side has avoided that intimidation factor this season and it might have helped them.

Now they need to finish the campaign on a high and it won’t be easy for them against a Villarreal side led by a manager who won the Europa League on three occasions during his time as Sevilla boss.

It didn’t work out for Unai Emery during his spell as Arsenal boss, but he knows how to win these big cup matches and I’m sure he will target the obvious weak spot in the United team.

While Bruno Fernandes is a class act who makes United tick in midfield and their attacking trio of Edinson Cavani, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford have the class to score against any defence, they have a problem at the other end of the field.

The absence of Harry Maguire at the heart of their defence is a big problem and they have looked shaky in his absence in recent weeks.

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Maguire is not the quickest, but he is a good organiser and massively important for United, so Villarreal will believe they will get chances in what could be a high-scoring final.

The other big factor working against this United team is the pressure they are under to win, as they have gone four years without a trophy and that is a long time for a club of their stature.

The Europa League might not be the trophy they want as the biggest clubs in Europe only have eyes for the Champions League, but this has been a big target for them since they went out of the big one last December.

This is a strange competition. There is a sense that the English teams will do anything to avoid being in the Europa League, yet it suddenly becomes important when you get to the quarter-finals and beyond.

A little like the FA Cup, this second-tier competition has lost its sparkle in recent times. I remember when it was a prize every club in Europe went after.

One of my earliest memories watching Liverpool was seeing them win the old UEFA Cup in the mid-1970s and it was a massive trophy to win back then, with the gloss taken off it somewhat in recent times as the Champions League has become so important.

Yet this United team and their unproven manager need to get silverware to confirm they are moving forward and for that reason, it is a massive game for their short-term future.

Solskjaer has yet to sign a new contract and his current deal runs out in the summer of 2022, so he will be under huge pressure if he loses on Wednesday night.

He has been given two-and-half years to convince the doubters that he is the man to bring the glory days back to Old Trafford and I’m pretty sure Man City manager Pep Guardiola and Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp will not be too worried if Solskjaer stays in place for a few more years.

United could go to the next level if they were to sign Jadon Sancho and Harry Kane this summer, but I wouldn’t have too much faith in them winning the Premier League title while Solskjaer is in charge.

Gini leaves big gap to fill at Pool

LIVERPOOL will have a big hole to fill in their midfield following the departure of Gini Wijnaldum – and it’s strange to see a player of his quality leaving on a free transfer.

I hear he was after a four-year contract on big money and at the age of 30, Liverpool were never likely to give him that.

So he will move on and fill his boots with a big-money transfer and he leaves after providing some truly great memories in a Liverpool shirt.

He will always be remembered for his pivotal role in the incredible Champions League semi-final comeback against Barcelona in 2019, when he scored two goals and led the team to glory. I will remember him as a player who was rarely injured and always gave his all to the cause, which has been more vital than ever this season.

Liverpool have had so many key players out injured over the course of this campaign, so their third place finish last Sunday was a minor miracle.
Now they need to look at adding some fresh blood to the squad and when they target new players, they need to make sure they have a good track record with injuries.

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