Had Ole Gunnar Solskjaer failed to get Manchester United out of a Champions League group containing Atalanta, Villarreal and Young Boys of Berne, it would have been a major failing in a season full of fails for United. The Norwegian wasn’t in his job long enough to find out having been dismissed after United’s 1-4 defeat Watford on Saturday.
He leaves hoping to see sunnier climes, with his head held high and a conviction that he loved almost every minute, that he left the club in a better place than he found it in December 2018 and that an awful final few weeks doesn’t change those feelings.
There were many highs under him, but none high enough to win trophies. The closest he came was the final of the Europa League in May when United lost 11-10 after a shootout of peerless penalties. Solskjaer looked floored after that game, United felt floored. A trophy would have given him and his players a big lift, like the FA Cup had done for United in 1990.
Villarreal’s first ever trophy meant the side who were Spain’s seventh best team last season and are currently 12th in La Liga after 12 games this season got into the Champions League where they were grouped with United.
They went to OId Trafford in September and were by a distance the best team in the first half, when they took the lead. That was another half United fans watched through their fingers as the Spaniards missed other chances. It was to the fury of their players that United won thanks to Ronaldo’s late winner.
As Villarreal’s players sat in the dressing room cursing what had just happened and feeling vengeful, 3,000 United fans in the stand directly above them above them sang Viva Ronaldo for 40 minutes in celebration and also the hope that he would appear. He did, when they had gone. United can’t take risks when there are people prepared to run on the pitch just to be near the air Ronaldo breathes.
Ronaldo’s arrival at Old Trafford was unexpected and dropped onto a team of coaches who had to tweak any identifiable style of play United were aiming towards. They would have to stop the press that had won games like Manchester City away, for one. As the cash registers rang, team shirts sold out and social media clicks went through the roof with player who has 368 million followers on Instagram alone (Manchester United have 52 million) United tried to adapt their football to fit Ronaldo. Did it work or will it work? Let’s see. Ronaldo is still scoring crucial goals – and great ones too – but United have been mostly awful since he returned.
Ronaldo’s view is that he can help. He gathered the players last week and told them the importance of unity, of professionalism, of a winning mentality. He hoped they would respond at Watford, the second favourites to be relegated this season. They didn’t. United were indescribably bad.
Solskjaer lost his job as a result and most fans think that was the right decision. They hoped it would have been different, especially after last season’s second place and the three stellar summing signings, but United have regressed.
Watford hammer Manchester United in Solskjaer's last game
Michael Carrick is the interim manager for now, a role he was asked to fulfil on Sunday morning at the same time Solskjaer said goodbye to his many friends at the training ground.
Carrick had two days to formulate his team for Tuesday’s game at El Madrigal, Villarreal against Manchester United in the Champions League being a huge game. If the Spanish side win, as they felt they deserved to at Old Trafford in September after dominating in the first half and taking a lead before losing 1-2, then they go three points clear of United at the top of the group with one game to play.
If Villarreal win by bettering United’s 2-1 win against them then they would stay above United, no matter what happens in the final group game. It’s vital that United don’t get hammered, like the team have been by Leicester City, Liverpool, Manchester City and Watford recently. A draw would do in these circumstances ahead of a final group game at Old Trafford against Young Boys, the group’s bottom team whose only win so far came ... against Manchester United.
If Atalanta beat Young Boys on Tuesday night and United lose, United slip back into third in the group and a Europa League position.
When Carrick played so many of his 464 games as a midfielder between 2006-2018, his team would usually ease out of the Champions League group stage. That was then. For now he can only do what he can and spoke well when facing the media for the first time.
“First of all, it has been an emotional time for everyone at the club,” Carrick said on Monday. “I've been working with Ole now for three years and I've known him an awful lot longer. I know the person he is, the values he has, what he believes and how he treats people.
“To see Ole, unfortunately, lose his job yesterday was tough for me and tough for a lot of people at the club. You could tell by the emotion around the place yesterday what Ole meant to everyone.
“We understand and Ole understands it’s a results business, so as much as you build the right foundations and environment and you show people the way, you sometimes don’t get what you deserve.”
Carrick was on the bench in Gdansk and at Old Trafford.
“Villarreal are a very good team, very well organised and very well coached,” he told The National ahead of the game. “They were two different types of games. In the final we played very well and stopped them from playing for long periods. We just didn’t have the cutting edge and to lose as we did hurts when you get close. In the end you have to say that we weren’t good enough on the night to finish it off.
“Then in the game at Old Trafford, what happened is pretty much what we expected. They’re a good team who take the ball well. They have nice connections and paths through the pitch, good technical players who can angle a ball and frustrate you and keep the ball off you at times. They have speed and penetration in the last lines, so for them it’s a good mix, they have a good balance and we respect that. We’re going there with a plan to come out on top. It’s a big game.”