Friday 23 August 2019

Solskjaer demands patience from his players against 'streetwise' Barca stars

Paul Pogba: Dip in form of late. Photo: PA Wire
Paul Pogba: Dip in form of late. Photo: PA Wire

James Ducker

You had to wonder if Chris Smalling had missed the memo when he bravely challenged Lionel Messi to "bring it on", which felt like the equivalent of taunting a lion and expecting to escape a mauling.

It was certainly at odds with the more circumspect message being preached by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer yesterday as the Manchester United manager weighed up the threat Messi and Barcelona posed to his side at Old Trafford tonight.

United staged one of the great European comebacks in the previous round against Paris Saint-Germain to set up this showdown and Solskjaer is happy that he has detected a similar mood in the camp this week as he did in the build-up to that game rather than the cockiness he detected among his players before the 2-0 first leg home defeat by the French champions.

He also urged his players to guard against cheap fouls in dangerous areas at the same time as calling for Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi not to fall for any tricks from Barcelona's wily attacking trio of Messi, Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez.

Luke Shaw and Ashley Young will have to be particularly vigilant, with both a booking away from being suspended for the second leg at the Nou Camp next week.

"I can feel the tension and excitement at training - you can see players wanting to play," said Solskjaer.

"The mood before the PSG home game was a little bit different because they'd won so many games, but we've learnt from that match.

"The players have talked about it - how we got dragged into making fouls. You've got to be more patient in tackles.

"Some of these Barcelona players will have some tricks up their sleeves, streetwise players.

"We know we can't give fouls away. How many goals has Messi scored from free-kicks just outside the box?"

There is certainly no risk of over-confidence this time out. Whereas United went into that PSG game on the back of 10 wins from Solskjaer's first 11 games in charge, they have hit the skids of late.

Three defeats in the past four outings have had a sobering effect, with United out of the FA Cup and facing an uphill battle to finish in the top four.

For all the talk about Messi, Solskjaer needs his own talisman to stand and deliver.

Paul Pogba's form has nosedived since his red card against PSG at Old Trafford - one goal and two assists in nine games compared to eight goals and five assists in 10 matches before then - and he appears to have had his head turned by the Real Madrid links.

Pogba certainly owes United a big performance in a game of this stature and, with Ander Herrera ruled out through injury and Nemanja Matic a serious doubt, the burden on him in midfield is huge.

"It's not about one player - everyone has to perform at their best level - but at his best Paul can run a game like this and that's what you expect from him," said Solskjaer, who is hoping Marcus Rashford will be fit, with the England striker still troubled by an ankle injury suffered against Liverpool six weeks ago.

"Paul's job is to be the creator and, when we win the ball, to drive forward. I expect him to perform.

"He knows the game against PSG was not his greatest moment. So he is focused on playing well against Barcelona and I cannot see him not playing for Man United next season either."

Solskjaer joked that he would settle for two 3-3 draws - like those played out in the group-stage games between the sides in 1998-'99 - before a penalty shoot-out at the Nou Camp, where he made his name with that dramatic winner in the 1999 final against Bayern.

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