Ole Gunnar Solskjaer achieved what seemed impossible at one stage last season when he turned around a wretched start and led Manchester United to Champions League qualification.
This was an opportunity which he could not waste. And it all seemed to be going well after back to back opening wins over PSG and RB Leipzig.
Now with one game to go, the ‘Group of Death’ is living up to it’s name, with three teams locked on nine points.
United top the group and need a draw in the final match to progress, but the fixture, away to RB Leipzig, is a daunting one.
The frustrating part about United’s situation is that it feels entirely self-inflicted.
If not for the loss in Turkey to Istanbul Basaksehir, United would have qualified already.
The performance put in that match was an embarrassment. United turned up without a plan and paid for the most basic of defensive mistakes, while offering little in attack. Demba Ba’s goal was one which would not get conceded by teams in the lower leagues.
Then against PSG, Solskjaer hurt his own cause by leaving Fred on the pitch, leading to a red card, when it seemed clear that substitutes needed to be made. He could not do anything about Anthony Martial’s missed chances, but you can question why the out of form Frenchman was on the pitch in the first place.
Added together, these two games reflect poorly on Solskjaer. He deserves credit, by the same note, for United’s opening two wins. But that makes the losses even more unforgivable.
United had six points from the opening two games, and have conspired to get just three points from the following three. From a position of strength, United are up against it. The last two group games should have been irrelevant, a chance to rotate players.
The situation has now backed United into a corner, and sometimes that is when the team produce good results. However, Solskjaer’s team have a mixed record when it really matters, with three semi-final defeats last season.
The big picture could see repercussions
A defeat in Leipzig would be a calamity considering United’s start to the group.
And a return to the Europa League just sounds depressing. It’s hard to be motivated for that. Even winning the trophy would feel somewhat hollow, as it would be laced with the disappointment of the Champions League exit, when the group was in our total control.
The worst case scenario would be a heavy defeat in Leizpig. Solskjaer could pay a heavy price.
The conversation on Solskjaer flips from result to result, which is why a big picture situation like a Champions League exit would be so damning. There would be no bouncing back from this.
There is little chance it would lead to an instant sacking, but it would feel like it could be the beginning of the end.
Solskjaer would have failed to achieve a clear objective, for the first time in his stint as United boss.
United are still in a good position in the Premier League, but that could quickly change. If the domestic form takes a step back, in addition to a Champions League exit, then pressure will grow.
A Champions League group stage exit in 2015 led to Louis van Gaal’s demise. Even a FA Cup win months later could not save him, the change had already been set in motion.
Win or draw in Leipzig, and Solskjaer’s job is probably safe for the rest of the season. Reaching the knockout stages would be an achievement from this tough group, no matter how we get there.
United never do it the easy way. But there is little room for error.
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