MANCHESTER, England — With a 4-0 lead from the first leg against Real Sociedad, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could have picked himself for the second leg and still been sure of progress in the Europa League. Instead, the Manchester United manager, who celebrates his 48th birthday on Friday, fielded his best player, Bruno Fernandes, and at least four others who will expect to start against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Even with a big game in the Premier League at the weekend, Solskjaer is not about to pass up the chance to win his first trophy. An uneventful 0-0 draw against La Real in the second leg means United are still in the hunt in the Europa League, as if it was ever in doubt after such a comprehensive victory in Turin a week ago.
“We played against a very good team and the start of the game showed why it was important [to pick a strong team],” said Solskjaer afterwards. “You don’t want to go into half-time one or two down. I felt the first 10 or 15 minutes were slow and then we played some very good stuff. I think it shows how good the performance was last week.
“We want to go further [in the Europa League]. When you have failed in four semifinals you want to improve.”
This time last year, Solskjaer was taking the Europa League seriously but for very different reasons. Heading into their last-32 tie with Club Brugge, United were seventh in the league and sweating on their place in this season’s Champions League group stage.
Fast-forward 12 months and United, currently second in the Premier League, shouldn’t need the Champions League place that comes with lifting the Europa League trophy — but Solskjaer could do with the silverware. Having won 10 major honours as a player at Old Trafford, he knows his time in charge will be judged on trophies.
His ultimate aim is to win the Premier League title and the Champions League, but the Europa League is a good place to start. You can expect another strong team in the round of 16 and against Leicester City in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup next month, even if by then United have somehow managed to turn Manchester City’s stroll towards the title something resembling a race.
Given the choice between the two, Solskjaer would rather finish fourth and win a trophy than finish second but end the season empty-handed.
Even with a strong team, United didn’t have it all their own way. Real Sociedad captain Mikel Oyarzabal missed an early penalty and Modibo Sagnan hit the bar with a header shortly after half-time. But even if both of those had gone in, the Spanish side still wouldn’t have gone through, and in the end it was a forgettable night and might only be remembered for £37 million Amad Diallo making his home debut and Shola Shoretire becoming the club’s youngest player in European competition, beating a mark set by Norman Whiteside in 1982.
“Shola has some skills and an attitude that we think will make him a very good player,” said Solskjaer. “It’s a platform tonight, those 15 minutes. It is something for him to remember, something to build on, with the fans he would have enjoyed it more but these are strange and different times. I’m sure all the fans will see him later on. Anyone who signs here has a chance if they have the right attitude and listen to the coaches.”
Fernandes was only needed for the first 45 minutes and the Portuguese midfielder was substituted at the break along with Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Fred, two others likely to be in the team at Chelsea. Axel Tuanzebe thought he had scored his first United goal with a thumping header from Alex Telles’ corner in the second half only to see it ruled out by referee Lawrence Visser after a trip to the pitch-side monitor.
On the night it was job done. The aim for the rest of the season is to make sure they have something to show for the progress that has been made over the last 12 months, preferably in the form of something that can be housed in the trophy cabinet.
“From now until the international break we have seven or eight games and of course it’s Chelsea, Leicester, Man City, West Ham, Crystal Palace away — massive games,” Solskjaer said. “They are all important games so these three weeks until the international break will be massive for us but we are a good team.”