Manchester derby: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's unenviable challenge to brighten grey skies at Manchester United
United beat City 12 months ago to delay their eventual Premier League title win, but they failed to build on it. Solskjaer's men desperately need a similar result this term, but it needs to be about more than just stopping City’s title charge
An indicator of Manchester United’s current position is that the odds for them to beat Manchester City at home in Wednesday’s derby are the longest for them to win a home game in the Premier League era.
It stands to reason.
City have won 28 of their 34 league games including the last 10. They have scored 24 more goals than United and conceded 22, less than half United’s 48. Pep Guardiola’s side are 22 points ahead of a United side that has won two of its last eight matches in all competitions.
United have a far better overall record in the 177 Manchester derbies with 73 wins to City’s 52, but City have a better recent record at Old Trafford than United. Since City won 6-1 at Old Trafford in 2011, they have won four, drawn once and lost only twice in the home of their great foes. City beating United away at the start of the 2016/17 season and again in December 2017 effectively knocked United out of the title race.
United have not been in that race at all this season, leading to Jose Mourinho’s December dismissal, but the honeymoon under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is over, the optimism replaced by doubts about the future.
United have stopped winning and scoring, and the players are rightly being called out for their sub-par performances, the worst of the season coming at Goodison Park. Only six weeks ago, United won in Paris and fans were singing ‘Ole’s at the wheel’ throughout every game.
Solskjaer remains very popular, but the last 20 minutes of Sunday’s defeat at Everton saw fans singing non-stop about the 1999 treble success, in part because City will not be winning the same treble this season and also because it is easier to sing about a glorious past than a difficult present.
Following that game, this writer asked Solskjaer what he had to do to get United out of the slump.
“We have City on Wednesday – that’s the biggest incentive we can have,” he said. “Old Trafford, at home, in front of our fantastic fans… they were unbelievable again today.
"We just got thumped 4-0 and they never moaned at our players which they could have done. They've been supportive again and they'll do it again on Wednesday and it's up to us – from me, to the players, to the staff to make sure that we're ready.
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“In the short term now we have to focus on the next two games [United play Chelsea on Sunday], two massive games. If we win those two we still have a chance [for top four]. I said we need 75/76 points to get top four, we’re on 64 and there are 12 points to be won.
"It sounds too easy to say you have to look forward but we cannot dwell too much on this. In the long term we'll look at this, but short terms we must look at City and Chelsea.”
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United fans do not want Liverpool or City to win the league but one of them will. Most United fans would rather it was not Liverpool winning the league for the first time in 29 years, but there is no question of them wanting to go easy against City to do Liverpool a favour.
United’s players would be hammered by their own fans for that, and the mood is febrile among supporters after the sinking defeats of late. They need something to raise spirits – that and the small matter of a top-four finish so that they can play in the Uefa Champions League next season.
An unfancied United delayed City winning the league last term, roaring back from 2-0 at half time to beat them 3-2. City had planned a big party that day. Nothing could have been better than winning the league at home against Manchester United, but they had to wait another week as second placed United lost at home to struggling West Ham United.
Such frustrating inconsistencies were a microcosm of Mourinho’s 2018 at the club.
United fans have a song for Solskjaer which goes ‘you make me happy when skies are grey’. Most football watchers certainly do not believe he will be able to brighten the undoubtedly grey skies at Manchester United.
Updated: April 25, 2019 08:30 AM