Coach Solskjaer showing he has a knack for winning big games
PARIS (AP) — As a striker for Manchester United, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer found all kinds of ways to score from difficult angles, often late winners when tired opponents could no longer track his clever runs.
Now he’s finding ways to win against the odds as United’s coach. Wednesday’s 3-1 success at Paris Saint-Germain sent United into the Champions League quarterfinals courtesy of a Solskjaer-style, injury-time winner.
“This is how we do things at Man United,” Solskjaer said after the game, with the same pride he showed wearing the jersey. “Of course we fancy ourselves. We can go all the way.”
Although there will be stronger teams left in the competition, it might not be wise to bet against United given the way Solskjaer engineered a victory against PSG despite missing 10 players through injury and suspension.
He even found a way of turning those absences into a positive.
“That was maybe a good thing because we had a fresh team, loads of energy,” he said. “We knew we had to work hard.”
As a roaming forward the slippery Solskjaer was known for being the ultimate “super sub” for United, coming off the bench late in games to score crucial goals. That’s exactly what he did in the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich, when his injury-time winner completed a late comeback.
These days he’s having a similar impact without even leaving the bench.
Since replacing unpopular Jose Mourinho in December , he’s won 14 of 17 games, drawing twice and losing once — 2-0 in the first leg of the last-16 match against PSG.
As a player, Solskjaer learned from the powerful influence of Alex Ferguson, United’s legendary manager. The Norwegian’s first season at United in the 1996-97 season was also the last of mercurial French striker Eric Cantona’s iconic United career. They scored 34 goals between them.
After Wednesday’s win in Paris, Solskjaer was reunited with Ferguson and Cantona — who were both at the game — and the trio clenched fists together in a celebratory photo that highlighted the links between United’s glory days and the promising future it now has under Solskjaer.
With United missing its midfield trio of Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera, Solskjaer faced PSG with limited options. He went with Scott McTominay in central midfield, with Brazilian Fred and Ashley Young operating either side of him.
The 22-year-old McTominay, given his chance during Mourinho’s time in charge, was particularly impressive and unsettled PSG’s rhythm by winning a number of tackles and imposing himself physically. It exposed PSG’s lack of tenacity in midfield since Thiago Motta retired.
“They did a fantastic job. Putting pressure on (Marco) Verratti and Marquinhos,” Solskjaer said. “Fred, that was probably his breakthrough for us as well. Gets on the ball, no fear, no doubt.”
As a former striker himself, Solskjaer could sense Romelo Lukaku’s frustration.
The Belgian forward has looked sluggish at times this season and was out of favor with Mourinho.
With injuries decimating United’s forward line, the burly Belgian center forward got another chance and responded in style.
He scored twice against PSG, the first very well taken from a tight angle, and his ability to hold the ball up provided the perfect foil for Marcus Rashford to use his excellent movement off the ball.
“Six goals in three games. Not bad,” Solskjaer said with a hint of irony about Lukaku’s recent goal return. “He’s worked his socks off to get back in the team. He’s had his criticism but we’ve played him a position which suits him. More direct, facing goal.”
United’s co-owner Avram Glazer spoke with Solskjaer in the dressing room after the game, but Solskjaer said it was only about the match.
United haven’t yet decided whether to give him the job full time, and Solskjaer isn’t the sort to be pushy.
“I’m just doing the best I can,” he said. “I’m a supporter as well and I want the best for Man United, as a manager I want the best.”
Because the tenures of Mourinho, Louis van Gaal and David Moyes ended in disappointment, the club is taking its time before making a decision.
But Solskjaer’s tactical nous and the clamor from fans for him to stay could work in his favor, especially if United reaches the semifinals.
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