Ole Gunnar Solskjaer misses his date with destiny as another cup passes Manchester United by

·5-min read
 (Manchester United via Getty Images)
(Manchester United via Getty Images)

A European cup final on May 26.

A goal down at half-time after a poor opening 45 minutes.

A veteran poacher reacting quickest to turn home a loose ball to level the game.

The script was surely written for a late 2-1 victory.

The parallels were no doubt romantic for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, even if few neutrals would have been congratulating Manchester United after their shameless Super League indulgences earlier this season.

But 22 years to the day since the ‘baby-faced assassin’ fired United to Champions League glory in Barcelona, Clive Tyldesley’s famous words, “... and Solskjaer has won it!” were left stuck in the throat of United fans.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Europa League glory was not the main aim this season; the only reason United were in Gdańsk to face Villarreal at all was because of their meek Champions League group-stage exit.

But try telling Solskjaer that this trophy didn’t matter; try telling Bruno Fernandes as tears rolled down his face while Villarreal celebrated yet another Europa triumph for Unai Emery.

Solskjaer has had to endure plenty of criticism in the Old Trafford hotseat - some of it entirely justified.

But United’s so-called ‘PE teacher’ almost had a major cup (the club’s first in four years) to back up his claims of progress at Old Trafford.


 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Solskjaer has repeatedly spoken of Premier League positions being a better marker of progression than cup football, though you could argue a coach who had four semi-final exits on his managerial record before this game would say that.

And while United must be looking up at Manchester City, rather than down at Leicester City, the FA Cup offers Foxes fans plenty of comfort after they missed out on Champions League football yet again.

Following the Super League fiasco, the Glazers would have privately accepted getting the season done and dusted without any more protests. Still, a realistic expectation for the campaign was a top-four finish and a cup.

Though the Europa final came down to the finest of margins - an 11-10 shootout decided by one goalkeeper saving another’s effort - a long season ends with a whimper, with Champions League qualification an afterthought.

With United trailing following an ineffective first half, Edinson Cavani scored a goal which had a whiff of Teddy Sheringham’s scrappy finish to level against Bayern Munich 22 years ago to the day.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

There was to be no fairytale injury-time winner from a substitute - partly because Solskjaer didn’t make one until extra time despite Marcus Rashford’s extraordinarily bad performance - even if Juan Mata and Alex Telles, both on in the 122nd minute for penalties, scored their spot-kicks with aplomb.

The Super League debacle will leave many neutrals feeling United got their comeuppance, with the club’s ruthless - and ultimately unsuccessful - pursuit of more money at all costs making relative minnows Villarreal the clear choice for the purists in Gdańsk.

Still, few would have begrudged a man as affable as Solskjaer a night like this. Arsenal fans can attest to the fact that there is nothing quite like watching a former player such as Mikel Arteta return to the dugout to lead the team to cup glory; it was part of the reason why so many Chelsea fans were sad to see Frank Lampard go, despite Thomas Tuchel’s obvious brilliance since then.

 (Manchester United via Getty Images)
(Manchester United via Getty Images)

However, yet another near miss in a cup leaves big question marks for both United and Solskjaer this summer.

For a man known as the ideal super-sub as a player, his tactics and substitutions against Villarreal left a lot to be desired; there is little in the way of boldness about his changes, with subs tending to be reactionary after a game stagnates - particularly given how often United have had to turn around games after poor starts.

You felt Rashford was being kept on for a shootout kick alone, when the likes of Amad Diallo and Donny van de Beek were left to kick their heels on the touchline rather than try and win the game outright.

So, will the Glazers back him with cold, hard cash to try and close the gap to Man City?

Or will they allow the new Premier League champions a free run at signing Harry Kane to potentially dominate both domestically and continentally for years to come?

It must also be asked whether Solskjaer is the right man to attract the truly elite signings the club needs to reel in Pep Guardiola’s team. Could Kane, for example, possibly turn down the chance to work with Guardiola if City decide to break the bank?

And were Kane to leave Spurs for the guarantee of trophies, Solskjaer’s United can offer no evidence to back up any overtures they may make to the England striker.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

City’s ruthless quest for silverware is the level United and Solskjaer must operate on if they stand any chance of competing with their noisy neighbours, let alone surpassing them - but it is easier said than done.

Watching Sir Alex Ferguson - part of UEFA’s trophy presentation committee in Poland - and Solskjaer celebrating another European trophy would have been an ideal end to a long, sometimes-traumatic season for United fans, but it was not meant to be.

Unlike that famous night at Camp Nou all those years ago, which was the pinnacle of United’s glorious 1990s under Ferguson, this night in Gdansk was meant to be the beginning of a new era for the club.

 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Solskjaer has been given time and patience by United, and will surely be granted that again given his dismissal would likely draw angry protests from fans already furious with the Glazers and Ed Woodward.

The Norwegian has objectively improved United, but is that enough now? For all the toxicity Jose Mourinho bright to the club, he finished second and won trophies; Solskjaer has yet to pull off the latter.

One thing is clear: 2021/22 will surely be silverware or bust for Solskjaer.

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