It was hard to imagine that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is entering the most pivotal spell of his brief, and spectacular, reign as Manchester United’s interim manager as he sat, as relaxed and on-message as ever, at his beloved Old Trafford yesterday.
Having spent the last two months surprising England and the Premier League and defying the doubters who questioned the wisdom of appointing him to pick up the shattered pieces left by the Jose Mourinho implosion, the Norwegian is aiming to do the same in Europe, starting tonight.
Solskjaer is preparing for his first Champions League game in charge of the club he famously helped win the competition 20 years ago, as they face Paris St Germain at Old Trafford in the first leg of their last-16 tie.
The draw was made on Mourinho’s final day as United manager in December and PSG were immediately considered heavy favourites to progress.
After Solskjaer has put together 10 wins and one draw from his 11 games in charge, the greatest start any United manager has ever made to his career, the tables have turned.
The French champions have arrived in Manchester missing two of their biggest stars in the world’s most expensive player in Neymar and Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani, along with Belgian wing-back Thomas Meunier.
They still represent formidable opposition, and although Solskjaer refuses to look beyond that, he thinks his United team can come under the radar as the Champions League heats up.
“The squad is very capable of winning against any opponents,” he said. “When we go into games confident as we are, we are looking forward to this, but we can’t look too far ahead.
“We have to look to PSG and make sure we go through this one and then take the next challenge as it comes. But I have been very pleased with the attitude. I said to the boys that if we keep working every single day in training as we are and work hard when we have to work hard, we can improve and we can maybe surprise a few people.”
Solskjaer has put himself in pole position to be handed the manager’s job on a permanent basis at Old Trafford following his brilliant start.
He is now entering into a potentially decisive period of three games in 12 days as after PSG, United face Chelsea in the FA Cup at Stamford Bridge next Monday and welcome Liverpool in the Premier League on February 24.
Come through those three with flying colours and it’s almost inconceivable to think the scorer of United’s winning goal against Bayern in the 1999 Champions League final won’t be in charge next season.
But he is happy to carry on with the current status quo while the team is performing so well.
“That is too simple,” he said. “You have so many ways. You need to change the script. That is too simple. There are still a few months left of this season to do whatever I can for the club.
Solskjaer was watching the draw at home in Norway with his son, Noah, back in December like every other United fan, little realising what was about to happen next. But now he is in command and he has not stopped smiling as the results and confidence have flowed back through the club.
So with a renewed spring in everyone’s step, he wants to stir up Old Trafford for its biggest European night for years, the type for which the club is so well known, as they take on their French visitors for the first time.
“It’s been too long since a big European night,” he admitted. “Maybe looking back the last exciting knockout game was when we lost to Real Madrid and Nani was sent off (in 2013). Then there was Bayern Munich a few years ago as well.
“We’re looking forward to this, both the supporters and the players. These nights are special and they’ve always been special.
“My last one was when we beat Roma 7-1 and I came on. It was a great Old Trafford night. We lost 2-1 away and the manager was still happy.
“He said: ‘That’s OK, we will win at home’.
“He was so confident in our abilities.
“I just want the players to go into this match with confidence and to embrace the game.”
While Solskjaer prepares to lead his team in Europe’s premier club competition, he even had a word for his former United team-mate, Paul Scholes, who begins his own managerial career tonight in more modest surrounding.
Scholes has taken over at League Two Oldham Athletic and faces his first game at home to Yeovil on the same evening.
“I wish him all the best,” adds Solskjaer. “I have watched him as a pundit and he has been asking for it. It’s fantastic to have Scholesy back in the game.
“With football, it’s a drug and when you don’t get it, you need it.”
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