Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reacts to United’s semi-final defeat by Sevilla in last season’s Europa League
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s struggles in semi-finals are well-known by now. This meeting with Roma in the last four of the Europa League will be his fifth appearance at this late stage of a cup competition as manager of Manchester United but the other four ended in defeat. The wait for a first final goes on and Solskjaer’s personal wait stretches further back still.
Three late goals – all scored after the 75th minute, the last coming in stoppage time – knocked Molde out of the 2017 Norwegian Cup, a little more than two years before Solskjaer’s return to Old Trafford. Even the introduction of a 17-year-old Erling Haaland could not drive the Molde players on to find a way past Arnold Origi, cousin of Divock, in the Lillestrom goal.
You have to go back eight years, to a triumphant 2013 run in the same competition, for the last time Solskjaer reached a final, progressing past Lillestrom on penalties in the semis before lifting the cup against Rosenborg. The previous season, Molde were knocked out of the last four by Tromso.
Solskjaer has only won one semi-final in his decade of senior management and even then required a shootout.
Does any that matter? Does it have any bearing on his chances of reaching the Gdansk showpiece next month?
Almost certainly not. You only need to look to the other side of Manchester to find a manager who recently put talk of a quarter-final curse to bed. Beat Roma over these two legs, the first at Old Trafford tonight, and Solskjaer’s semi-final record will be largely forgotten.
Yet United’s habit of stumbling at this stage has become a bigger talking point with each disappointment and, each time, it has raised familiar questions. Is this a team in need of taking the next step but struggling to do so? Is this repeated choking evidence of a mental block? And whether or not this semi-final curse exists, is it in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy?
After their most recent last-four failure, the Carabao Cup defeat by Man City in January, Solskjaer rubbished all those theories and instead pointed to the standard of opposition. “It’s not psychological,” he insisted. “It’s just sometimes you meet good teams in the semis and we just didn’t have enough. We met, at the moment, probably the best team in England and we just didn’t have enough today.”
City were also responsible for the first of the four semi-final defeats in last season’s Carabao Cup, outclassing Solskjaer’s side in the first leg, but United were favourites for the other two semi-finals. They were then desperately poor in their FA Cup elimination against Chelsea and though Sevilla are hardened knockout specialists, the gut-wrenching defeat in Cologne was full of familiar shortcomings.
Solskjaer said yesterday that all those defeats have been analysed for clues but did not go into detail about lessons which have been learned, if indeed any have. In fact, when asked for a possible explanation, he came back to the same point about the quality of the opponents. “You play against very, very good teams,” he insisted.
Even so, he was confident that United are in their best position yet to finally reach a final. Aside from Anthony Martial and the long-term absentee Phil Jones, he has a clean bill of health. With a Champions League spot all but sewn up, this competition can take priority. And if there is any positive to losing four consecutive semi-finals, it is the incentive not to lose a fifth.
“The players have had another year, they’re more experienced, they’ve come through difficult times,” Solskjaer said. “It was a strange end to last season with a tournament and even though we wanted to get to the final it was a strange atmosphere and feeling staying in Germany. Now with the motivation of having those disappointments, I feel very confident we get a good performance.
“That’s the thing,” he added. “You come to a situation like this, the team’s in good form, it’s comfortable and you just then hope we can produce on the night. That’s what it’s about, producing in 90 or 180 minutes, having that quality and some luck at times to get to the final.”
And in terms of the opponent, this is probably the most favourable match-up of the five semis so far. Roma are talented but inconsistent, sitting seventh in Serie A and on a run of just three wins in their last 10 games in all competitions. Paulo Fonseca’s side might arguably be the weakest of the four teams left in the competition and a preferable draw to Villarreal, despite their greater prestige.
United, meanwhile, are not only favourites for the tie but favourites to lift the trophy in Gdansk, as they have been since the moment they entered the competition.
This is Solskjaer’s best chance yet to end all talk of a supposed semi-final hoodoo or to stop one from developing.
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