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Caption: A new (baby) face at the reins at Old Trafford
In a period of slim pickings for Manchester United and their fans, this season has been perhaps the worst.
There is light at the end of the tunnel however, in the boyish features of former player Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The turnaround in his brief tenure at the club has been little short of remarkable, but what are his – and the board’s – priorities between now and when the players head to the beach at the end of May?
The Champions League
This competition is close to the Norwegian man’s heart, after his heroics in the 1999 final which saw United secure the treble.
That seems a long way away now.
As it stands today, Manchester United – according to the bookmakers – are not even in the top ten teams favourite to win the Champions League this year. That would have been unthinkable in his time at the club.
That said, those odds would have been based on the form under Mourinho, and perhaps look more than generous at this juncture.
United have a tough tie in the last 16 against PSG. Tough, but certainly not the toughest. They will be going into it with momentum behind them, and something else, something that has been sadly lacking for far too long – belief.
Winning the Champions League would be a remarkable turnaround in fortunes, but good though they have been playing of late, that could very well be a step too far. Other more realistic priorities lay ahead.
Caption: Solskjaer will be desperate to bring some of the magic from that ‘98/’99 season
The FA Cup
If there are two managers who really could do with winning the FA cup this year, it is Solskjaer and Arsenal’s Unai Emery.
Unfortunately for them, they have been drawn together in the 4th round. Even more unfortunately for United, they will be away from home.
Back when Ole was plying his trade, Fergusson’s United and Wenger’s Gunners were the two huge rivals in English football.
Games were fiery and controversial affairs, tempers boiled over, pizzas were thrown… Funnily enough another local manager, Sol Campbell was in the opposing camp when that rivalry was at its fiercest.
This game – to be shown live on the BBC on Friday 25th January – is unlikely to involve any dough-based shenanigans, but it has all the ingredients of being an absolute cracker of a cup tie.
From a Red perspective, a victory at Wembley on 18th May will put some gloss on and draw a line under an otherwise terrible season.
It would also be fantastic for Solskjaer’s CV both in terms of a potential dream job at Old Trafford or elsewhere in the EPL, especially after his less than impressive previous stint in the league, managing Cardiff City.
The bread and butter of how managers and teams are judged, this season looked to have practically run its course when Solskjaer took over. Short of steadying the ship, his remit was to get them playing the “United way” and save them from the potential embarrassment of finishing outside the top six.
Such has been the team’s performance since his arrival, and in particular their result at Wembley against Spurs last weekend, the top four has now got to be their target.
The fact that we are even talking about that is testament to the turnaround at the club.
Even if the six points gap does prove to be just to much, the fact that they are fighting for a top four place will give everyone associated with the club a much needed boost.
Preparing for the Future
No matter what happens between now and the end of the season (short of an unlikely reverse in fortunes and results as dramatic as the one in the last month), the club will enter the summer in a lot better position than the one they ended the last one in.
Suddenly they have options, ones that won’t be knee jerk reactions or a desperate last roll of the dice. The game against Spurs was billed by many as an interview between the two top contenders for the job.
If that was the case then the man currently in the job has made it very hard for those wielding the power to take it from him.
Especially as the man he (albeit with the help from an incredible performance from De Gea) got the better of in unquestionably his sternest test so far, is the runaway favourite for the job.
Away from the manager, the club needs to concentrate on keeping some of its current star assets, whilst looking to strengthen at the back this summer.
That is a lot easier to do if the club looks to be going places, and especially if they do manage to gate crash the top four.
Far from fizzling out, the remainder of the season could turn out to be a rollercoaster ride, and this time one that everyone – fans and players alike – want to get on board.