Saturday 20 April 2019

Chris Bascombe: 'Solskjaer confirms his United credentials as Liverpool take step towards title'


Manchester United caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Photo: Getty Images
Manchester United caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Photo: Getty Images

Chris Bascombe

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has now completed so many successful auditions he could be forgiven for feeling like a Broadway wannabe.

"Beat Liverpool and they have to give him the job," was the general consensus. He was denied the most emphatic confirmation of his credentials - Manchester United jabbed at rather than struck down their rivals' title chances - but there has never been a more well-received goalless draw in the post-Alex Ferguson era.

If a win would have sealed his post, a defeat to resemble the Champions League mauling from Paris St-Germain would have fed those who believe this a temporary uplift, Mauricio Pochettino remaining the obvious choice.

Now, it is inconceivable Solskjaer will return to the serenity of Molde. It would be akin to United forcing him back into semi-retirement, even if nothing can be taking for granted until the confirmation.

Solskjaer's ambitions were enhanced rather than dimmed despite being unable to inspire the rival-deflating victory United craved, with circumstances dictating he demonstrate he knows more than one tune.

The stars must be aligning in his favour. Even the most monotonous goalless draw - United's third consecutive Old Trafford fixture without a win under the Norwegian - can be interpreted as an encouraging display of the caretaker's acumen.

United fans might accept the irony that Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal must have been nodding approvingly as their more popular successor reorganised a stricken team and secured a point with a game plan written in their image.

Mourinho's last United game in charge against Liverpool in December saw him fail to repel Jurgen Klopp's side in a similar manner, only to lament the combination of players who were unavailable or not up to it.

"When you are permanently injured, physicality is very difficult to get," he said.

Solskjaer had no cause for such critical observations. His players just got on with it and delivered.

Injuries to Nemanja Matic and Anthony Martial before kick-off and Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard before half-time justified an approach which invited Liverpool to discover their mojo. They never did. It is never an encouraging sign when the heat map is most radiated by physiotherapists.

It is the responsiveness and versatility of Solskjaer that must have impressed his directors. His reign to date has been a restoration process - United getting back in touch with Alex Ferguson's teams built on pace and creativity - so if the tactical shift was not a surprise as his attacking options waned, its execution impressed.

Not that it was without assistance from the surprisingly limp visitors. This was a most underwhelming way for Liverpool to go above Manchester City. There was no statement performance like those enjoyed in this venue by Rafael Benitez and Brendan Rodgers when challenging United and City in 2010 and 2014, respectively. Perhaps that is an omen given those campaigns ended in narrow failure.

Klopp's Liverpool are different, and the overriding concern ahead of the closing months is whether caution has now replaced swagger as the default position. His selection of James Milner ahead of Trent Alexander-Arnold was a nod to the fixture here last season, when the young full-back suffered against Marcus Rashford. Alexander-Arnold obviously offers more going forward.

Liverpool's midfield was packed with players of similar traits - as has been the case all season. Fabinho excelled in the No 6 role, but leaving Naby Keita or Xherdan Shaqiri on the bench demonstrated they are still not trusted to start the most examining fixtures.

The early departure of Roberto Firmino did not help - he left Old Trafford on crutches - but whether it is Daniel Sturridge or Divock Origi ushered forward, there now feels more hope than expectation.

For all that, Klopp's side still have the title destiny in their own hands with 11 games to go.

Only City have beaten them, and if they can overcome Watford and neighbours Everton in the next seven days, the circumstances of this forgettable draw against an improved, albeit weakened, United will be forgotten.

"Liverpool, top of the league," came the chant as Klopp reappeared to make his way to the press room. It did not sound too emphatic. The belief is not there yet. This was a game played in a climate of fear. Liverpool had too much to lose.

"So did Solskjaer. They may both end up with what they want."

© Daily Telegraph, London

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