Manchester United travel to a Norwich City side they have comfortably defeated twice this season. Thirteen games unbeaten, United will travel for their FA Cup clash on Saturday without any fans – though one did book rooms in the hotel at Carrow Road which overlooks the pitch before his Manchester address gave him away.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is chasing a first trophy as United manager; coincidentally the FA Cup provided the opportunity for Alex Ferguson to bring his first trophy to Old Trafford in 1990.
"The FA Cup is a fantastic competition," the United manager told The National. "When I was a young boy back home it was a class game, the climax of the season, the game you looked forward to which was live on telly in Norway."
Solskjaer ended up playing in it, winning it twice in 1999 and 2004 with United, but his most dramatic moment came when he scored a 90th minute winner against Liverpool at Old Trafford in January 1999. Liverpool had led 1-0 and United were going out until the 88th minute when Dwight Yorke equalised and then Solskjaer’s left foot shot sent them through.
“That goal against them was probably the best moment in the FA Cup for me apart from when I walked up the steps of the old Wembley in the final,” he said. “I played a part in the first goal and that was a proud moment. My dad was in the stands. I’ve lifted it twice as a player and hopefully I’ll get a chance to walk out at Wembley again.
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“I’m not sure if the youngsters nowadays really understand how much this tournament means but our players certainly realise.”
The competition will be tough to win this year. Liverpool are out of it and Spurs too after Norwich eliminated them, but Manchester City, Chelsea, Sheffield United, Newcastle United, Arsenal and Leicester City remain in an all-Premier League final eight.
Norwich, six points from safety with only seven games remaining in the Premier League, have not scored since the restart, losing their two home games, 3-0 to Southampton and 1-0 to Everton.
Solskjaer has a big, fit, squad and he’ll make use of it against the Canaries.
“There will be a few changes but if you want to be part of a winning Man United team you have to make changes,” he said.
There was some good news for United fans with Jesse Lingard set to feature.
“Jesse has come back after the lockdown with a smile on his face and loads of energy,” he said.
“Unfortunately last week he fell ill for a couple of days. We’ve done all the tests and he’s fine. He’ll be involved against Norwich. He’s scored vital goals and been a vital player for us. Let’s see what the future will evolve because at the moment he’s looking sharp.”
The 27-year-old hasn’t started a league game since a woeful 2-0 defeat at Arsenal on New Year’s Day, but he played 90 minutes in United’s fourth round win at Tranmere and fifth round win at Derby. United have been drawn away in every round of the competition but have scored ten goals without conceding.
Solskjaer knows that he won’t just be judged on what his team do in the FA Cup.
“We’re in a position here we have to improve,” he said after congratulating Liverpool on winning a first title since 1990. “We have to get in the Champions League. Get higher up the league and start challenging for trophies. The consistency and efficiency which they’ve shown is a challenge as well. At our best we are very, very good. But we have to do that every Saturday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday whatever day it is. We have to do it again and that it the challenge for our players going forward.”
After a poor January in which his side lost four times, United are 13 unbeaten, with 10 clean sheets thanks not just to Bruno Fernandes but an increasingly assured defence including full-back Aaron Wan Bissaka.
“I saw an exceptional defender when I watched him last season,” said Solskjaer. “Exceptional games against Sane and Man City and when we managed to sign him you get to know him, a shy boy but he wants to learn and listen."
“He’s providing more assists, chances, crosses — the best full backs at the moment have been wingers before — we rely on full backs to go forward and we’re pleased with his progress.”
United themselves are a work in progress, but they’re in far better shape than their last visit to Norwich, a welcome October league victory that followed four league games without a win.