Unflappable Solskjaer sets the right tone ahead of pivotal Leicester trip

Unflappable Solskjaer sets the right tone ahead of pivotal Leicester trip
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (right) can overtake Chelsea manager Frank Lampard (left) with a win over Leicester on Sunday. 

If Manchester United’s players show the same poise and confidence under pressure as their manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in Sunday's vital Champions League 'decider' at Leicester, then the point they need to guarantee a top-four finish appears a formality.

If not, if there is a repeat of the jitters and individual errors that blighted recent home draws with Southampton and West Ham and the Wembley FA Cup capitulation against Chelsea, then United could be left counting the costs of missing out on Europe’s top competition.

An incredibly strong run of form — that Chelsea loss represents the only one in their last 21 league and cup games — has partly shielded the vital importance of Champions League qualification for Solskjaer’s side.

Failure would mean a second successive campaign in the Europa League and, with that, comes the threat of reduced income from sponsors whose deals are predicated on Champions League exposure.

In the case of kit manufacturers Adidas, United will lose £22.5 million of their annual £75 million contract for not being at Europe’s top table — not a terminal amount of money given their vast resources but, in football’s post-covid landscape, still potentially damaging.

Then there is the question of whether Solskjaer’s summer transfer targets may be less inclined to sign for him should there be a diet of Alkmaar, Brugge and Linz on the table instead of Juve, Barca and Real. Jadon Sancho looks increasingly likely to be heading to Old Trafford this summer. Surely, a top-four finish clinches that signing.

On a personal level, Solskjaer has a contract until the summer of 2022 but qualification for the Champions League this summer would strengthen his bargaining position for a new deal. Failure, and the likeable Norwegian will go into next season under even more intense pressure to close that huge gap to Liverpool and Manchester City.

And speculation linking Paul Pogba with Juventus and Real Madrid and, even, Marcus Rashford with PSG, is far easier to dismiss as long as those key United stars know they will be showcasing their skills in the Champions, not Europa, League next season.

The great, breakneck run that has taken United to the brink of the top four should not be under-appreciated. After losing to Burnley in January, United stood six points off the top four and 14 points behind Leicester. Tomorrow, as long as Chelsea lose at home to Wolves, the Reds could even lose to Leicester and still finish above Frank Lampard’s side.

But nor should the costs of failure at the King Power tomorrow be under-estimated, even if Solskjaer retained his ever-optimistic public vista.

“Let’s get this game out of the way and get third position and continue the growth and journey this team is on,” said Solskjaer.

“We've had some hard times this season, some setbacks, we've shown this is a team going places and if we can finish the season with a trophy in Europe and third…” 

Solskjaer did not need to complete that sentence to acknowledge that third place and the Europa League would represent a wildly successful season for a manager who appeared on the brink of the sack after his last league defeat, at home to Burnley in January.

Even allowing for some recent slips — plus the obvious boost from the additions of new signings Bruno Fernandes and fit-again Pogba and Rashford — it has been a stunning transformation.

“There are many many factors, many reasons. Belief is one,” said Solskjaer.

“I think the belief, the confidence, the change of atmosphere, Bruno coming in has made a massive difference, we've got our best players fit and raring to go.

“It’s been many different reasons for the upturn but it's been down to the work, they have trusted us, that they can, step by step, believe and trust in what we have said and the boys have worked really hard, the fitness levels and the mental robustness is so much better than last season.

“I think confidence levels have to be high, we've given ourselves a great chance going into last game, when the last game of the season is in front of you, you expect any players to have bruises, aches, tiredness.

“Even though this season has been different, it's been a draining one for everyone, but we have enough energy for 90-plus minutes, I’m sure.

“But, having been so far behind with the restart, we had to go for it, go for goals, go for points and it's been a great effort by everyone to get into this position with one game to go.”

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