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Champions League: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's resurgent Manchester United face litmus test as Lionel Messi's Barcelona come calling

“He who brings rain, brings life” goes a famous Zulu saying. In a far bygone millenium, Shamanic rainmaking was as normal as pottery and dentistry. It came about in times of deep connection between the indigenous and the cosmos. Those with a gift for nature would be honed in their craft for years before they could climb mountains to perform rituals. The ceremonies themselves would last hours; the shamans, flanked by bonfires roasting animal remains as tributes, would pray until they willed the skies to open.

All these years later, albeit minus the timbre and flames, the situation was bordering on similar lines in Northern England. In an unprecedented show of love and bias, followers and fans of Manchester United, including some in the media, sat hand-in-hand in a pursuit to convince the United board to conclude a decision that apparently didn’t exist anymore.

 Champions League: Ole Gunnar Solskjaers resurgent Manchester United face litmus test as Lionel Messis Barcelona come calling

File image of Manchester United interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Reuters

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, himself, played the most substantial part in these turn of events. The technical and emotional results he achieved in his first two and a half months at United would’ve gone a long way in making his case as the formal successor to Jose Mourinho. With every win, the weight on Ed Woodward’s fingers to type out Ole’s quintessential Nordic full name would’ve felt heavier. That Champions League night at Paris apparently left very little to ponder over.

The timing of the decision can be understood, because it affords the new manager and the board the space to plan for the next season. The need for a roster renovation at Manchester United has rarely been more urgent, and Solskjaer could do with some time and direction in moulding his first team.

The flipside, however, is that from the moment he signed on the paper, him and his team are going to be judged differently. Ole’s highs had partially smoke-screened the miseries under Mourinho and the massive role of United’s technical debt behind it. Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea, even Paris Saint Germain, were beaten away.

“Ole’s at the wheel, man. Man United are back!” said the typically effervescent Rio Ferdinand.

The higher you jump, the harder you land. A couple of days after their conquest in Paris, United started their impending descent. Nuno Espirito Santo’s well-drilled Wolverhampton outplayed United twice in two weeks and their home win over Watford was equal amounts laborious and fortuitous. This touchdown is turning out to be rough and abrasive.

Consider the scenario if Solskjaer was still a hot-favorite caretaker manager and the echoes of Mauricio Pochettino’s name were still hanging around the board rooms at Old Trafford, even if dissonant. Would the outlook towards this slump have been different? Possibly, because sometimes a label goes a long way in moulding perspective and the current squad would still be looked at as the Mourinho wreckage that Ole was working miracles with.

The discord between United’s attack-minded players and Jose Mourinho’s management was raw, public, and vocal. It presumably came due to the stress from the tactical leash Jose likes to put on his teams, and for large parts, it served as an excuse for substandard performances from some of the otherwise talented players. Under Ole, there is free reign to attack, and the leeway will shrink with every drop in performance. There is now an unmistakable air of expectation around the team to perform substantially for the remainder of the season, something that both the management and players must adapt to.

Purely for those reasons, they couldn’t have landed a worse opponent at this stage than Lionel Messi’s Barcelona. Ernesto Valverde is well within his rights to feel peeved at that association, but until such time as Messi kicks around a ball in that blue and red, it will be his team, for better or worse.

In the same week where United struggled to maneuver Watford at home, Messi hit a panenka free kick. You didn’t misread, the author of this article didn’t mistype. Panenka and free-kick in one motion of his left leg. A week from then, Messi scored another free-kick, this time against Villareal in pressing circumstances. Down in England, Chris Smalling scored an own goal to gift Wolves a Premier League victory. United have more than a mountain to climb this time.

Barcelona have been near unbeatable this season, losing only a meagre four games across all competitions. Like a typical Valverde team, they look balanced across the pitch. While Messi might still be the vanguard for most creative moves, he has a well-oiled support system in Suarez, Dembele, Arthur and Rakitic, all of whom will be expected to cause the United midfield and defense a lot of problems on their own.

It has been a long season for Manchester United. All things considered, that they are even playing the Champions’ League quarter-final is a remarkable achievement. Their magic potion so far has been an infectious sense of self-belief under Solskjaer, and they must play with the same vigour on Wednesday night. Besides, Ole himself knows a thing or two about willing results out when the walls are closing in.

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Updated Date: Apr 10, 2019 15:46:32 IST

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