Sunday 21 July 2019

Solskjaer has 'goosebumps' at thoughts of PSG and a Champions League charge

Paul Pogba of Manchester United
Paul Pogba of Manchester United

Jim White

"At Manchester United we go into every game thinking we can win it."

As mission statements go, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's, issued after winning 3-0 against a Fulham side showing every sign of seasonal capitulation, could not be more pointed.

Eleven games into his temporary control and United's caretaker manager is clear in his ambition: to reconnect the club to their former ways. Because going into every game thinking they can win it has not been the conspicuous aim since Alex Ferguson retired. Under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, caution and restraint have been the abiding watchwords.

Certainly, when the draw was made for the Champions League last 16 in December and they were pitched against Paris St-Germain, there were not many who thought that United could win it. The manner in which they had scrabbled through qualification, losing limply at Valencia in the final group game, made the idea a forlorn one.

Even Solskjaer admits, when he was watching the draw from his home in Norway, it seemed a daunting prospect. "I thought, 'Wow, what a challenge,'" he said. "Then, two or three days later, it's my challenge and I've got goosebumps."

Since then, everything has changed. Under Solskjaer's smiling leadership, winning eight of his nine league games in charge - more than they had managed in the previous 17 - United have gone from cowed to confident, from lacklustre to liberated. No one more than Paul Pogba, whose two goals here underlined a sublime contribution.

After being ostracised under the previous management, now he is playing in a manner befitting British football's most expensive signing. Brought up in the Mancunian way before he left for Juventus, he is clearly relishing life under the new regime. And he was full of praise for the manager who has so quickly restored the old-school United equilibrium.

"Ole helps every player play at their best," Pogba said. "Ole is himself. He's not acting and he's given joy and confidence to everyone. The team has a really good atmosphere. You can see on the pitch the effect."

In the process, Pogba and his team-mates have hauled back an 11-point deficit to make a coherent push for a top-four finish. Though for all his cheery optimism, Solskjaer is sensible enough to recognise Champions League qualification is the limit of domestic possibility this season.

"We might have a say in what's happening. But it's too far," he said of the idea of a title challenge.

A charge in Europe's elite competition, however, is a different issue.

Enthusing about the atmosphere of European nights at Old Trafford, the man whose goal won the trophy 20 years ago is savouring the prospect of managing his side in the competition.

"It'll be a fantastic night under the floodlights," he said. "The fans will be relishing it and it will be a new experience, as well for PSG."

It helped his preparations that Fulham provided such a comfortable warm-up for tomorrow. While Edinson Cavani was hobbling off during PSG's 1-0 win over Bordeaux, putting in doubt his place in a side already shorn of Neymar.

And with Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Victor Lindelof and Ashley Young all rested while Pogba, Ander Herrera and Anthony Martial - whose solo goal showed how the art of the counter-attack has returned under the Norwegian - were withdrawn early, Solskjaer has his first-choice team in top shape. Nothing appears to be going wrong. Which was perhaps why Pogba was keen to apply caution.

"There is a long way to go with big games coming up," he said. "We've got to focus on PSG and try and get points from the big teams."

Indeed, Solskjaer knows with games against Chelsea and Liverpool sandwiched between the two legs of the European tie, he must ensure his entire squad are honed and ready.

"If we are going to be successful this season we need everyone to contribute," he said. "When I played, the manager was always assuring us that when you're in the squad you will get a chance."

Eight weeks ago, the very idea that Manchester United might have a chance of doing anything other than disappointing was a remote one. That is the measure of the change the caretaker has wrought. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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