Manchester United falling off the ladder of being the first best four in Premier League Campaign in 2019.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admits Manchester United were handed a painful reality check in 2018-19, with the “biggest and best club in the world” needing to rebuild quickly.

The Red Devils have seen the curtain come down on a forgettable campaign that delivered a sixth-place finish in the Premier League, no silverware and failure to qualify for the Champions League.

A serious rebuilding job is required at Old Trafford, with Solskjaer the latest manager to be charged with the task of putting foundations for future success in place.

He has experienced a steep learning curve since returning to familiar surroundings, with a positive opening to a reign as interim boss having been countered by a run of two wins in 12.

Quizzed by United’s official club app as to what lessons he has taken from a season that promised much but delivered little, he said: “I’ve learned that I don’t like losing. I like winning.

“We started off fantastically. The boys were unbelievable when I came in. We were positive. We won games.

 

“The whole group gelled together and I enjoyed winning but I know that football is hard. You can’t just expect everything to go that way and the reality hit us.

“We are in a league with loads of very good teams and, to be at our top [level], we need to be 100 per cent focused.

“We came into some games really, really focused with the full team and I thought that was fantastic.

“Then you learn a lot when you go through tough times and think about who can be build this team around, and who we think is going to take the next step because we need to go to the next level.”

 

Part of the problem for United is that they have fallen behind domestic rivals who are flourishing at home and abroad and will likely spend again over the summer in an effort to become even stronger.

Solskjaer acknowledges the challenges he faces and the differences in English football to when he was starring for United as a player, adding: “There are different playing styles, more teams playing more continental styles and competitiveness to the league.

“It’s a massive difference, we’ve got six teams who would say ‘we can challenge for trophies’ and it used to be one or two, with us when Arsenal or Chelsea were challenging when I played.

“Leicester won the league, Everton are challenging and there are 10 teams who could qualify for Europe.

“You can see by City winning the league and possibly a domestic treble, maybe to Liverpool and Spurs in the Champions League final, and Arsenal and Chelsea in the Europa League final, that we’re competing against the best clubs in the world.

“That’s a challenge we won’t take lightly. It’s a great challenge for this club, the biggest and best club in the world.”

United are expected to splash the cash in the next transfer window as they endeavour to close the gap on those around them, with Solskjaer having already admitted that his squad for 2019-20 will look markedly different to the one he inherited from Jose Mourinho.

 

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Careless United undone by Messi double as Barca cruise into semis

Lionel Messi pounced on two Manchester United mistakes to score twice and end their hopes of another Camp Nou comeback as Barcelona breezed into the Champions League semi-finals on Tuesday.

After an excellent start, United were undone twice in four minutes by Messi, who first nicked the ball off the careless Ashley Young and then watched as a weak shot from distance squirmed underneath David de Gea.

Philippe Coutinho, in perhaps his best performance of the season, added a third with a curling effort into the top corner and by the end, an outclassed United might have been relieved the score was not more traumatic than 3-0, 4-0 on aggregate.

A dizzying opening spell, in which Marcus Rashford had hit the crossbar, was long-forgotten, even if it could offer Barcelona’s next opponents some encouragement.

Liverpool, who take a 2-0 lead to Porto on Wednesday, are the most likely obstacle between Barca and their first Champions League final since they last won this tournament in 2015. Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane might feel encouraged.

 

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Instead, United’s pair of early errors made this another night about Messi and ensured any faint hopes of repeating the comeback against Paris Saint-Germain, or even the famous 1999 rescue act against Bayern Munich, on this same pitch, were dashed.

Messi now has his 109th and 110th Champions League goals and, potentially, three extra matches to reduce the gap on Cristiano Ronaldo’s 126, after Juventus were dumped out by Ajax. Barcelona’s fans celebrated that too.

United’s coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had urged his strikers to be more lethal here but it felt ominous that even before kick-off, Rashford, Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez had hit 42 goals this season, while Messi on his own had 43.

Around an hour before kick-off, Alex Ferguson was on the side of the pitch, shaking hands with Ryan Giggs and sharing words with Solskjaer, the scorer of that goal against Munich here 20 years ago.

They could have hardly have asked for a better start. United were brilliant for eight minutes and could have been ahead within 30 seconds as Rashford raced onto a curving Paul Pogba pass and toed away a shot, which Marc-Andre ter Stegen bravely left to graze his own crossbar.

  • Magic Messi –

Barca were flustered, so much so the crowd even cheered with relief when Arthur Melo played his team’s first convincing pass.

Then, Barcelona had their own eight-minute flurry as United almost conceded a penalty, ruled out after Fred took the ball before bringing down Ivan Rakitic, and then did concede, twice, to Messi.

Both could have been avoided, even if Young’s turn on the edge of his own box was punished in devastating fashion. Young lunged in to atone for his mistake but Messi skipped away from him, poked it through Fred’s legs and then whipped the ball past into the corner.

The second was simpler. Fred and Scott McTominay closed in on Coutinho and the ball spilled out to Messi, whose dribbling shot with his right foot should have drawn a routine save. Instead, De Gea let is squirm under his body for 2-0.

Pogba lashed out at the increasingly influential Arthur and Barca could have had a third before half-time, De Gea scrambling across to save on the line when Sergi Roberto should have finished.

Messi could have had his hat-trick too after Luis Suarez found him with a superb cutback and there was an almost comical sequence in the second half when the Argentinian played with his United chasers before finally being bundled over by McTominay.

Rashford might have made it interesting if he had controlled Pogba’s ball over the top but Barcelona were in exhibition mode, helped by a vintage Coutinho curler after he had cut inside from the left.

Messi even attempted a bicycle kick and there were celebrations from the home fans when news went round that Ajax had taken the lead in Turin. They believe this is their year.

 

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Barcelona smother lifeless Manchester United to take advantage in Champions League quarter-final

The next six days will feature so much talk of historic comebacks in Camp Nou, but the tone of this tie is really the most predictable and routine of Barcelona victories. A 1-0 home defeat for Manchester United, that was secured by a goal that required another look, will not warrant many rewatches as regards entertainment. The aggressive edge apart, it felt so much more like a mundane Spanish league win rather than one of the most famous of Champions League pairings. Barcelona just did enough, because United could not do much.

That, in a different way, was another reality check for this new regime. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer lost his fourth game in five – and sixth in all – because his side were just up against a much better team, who themselves didn’t actually look that good. They didn’t really look like favourites.

Whether that was because they didn’t need to be will be a bigger question if Barca go on and seal qualification in the second leg as anyone would expect. Sometimes, too, such sides just do what they must and occasional lulls to conserve energy are natural. But if that’s what it was it makes it all the more underwhelming. It wasn’t exactly a statement performance at one of Europe’s great stadiums.

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It certainly didn’t have the epic feel of the Paris Saint-Germain tie, even the first leg. That in itself may be worse for United.

This was a game where they were just slowly smothered, rather than so suddenly stunned as against PSG. It’s going to be hard to lift themselves from something so lifeless. But will the same be true of Barca?

It was a bad game, and a mediocre performance from the Spanish champions, with even a bruised Leo Messi barely raising his level.

He was of course still central to the game’s decisive moment, as was an old Old Trafford antagonist in Luis Suarez.

 

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There was at least something a little special about that.

The officials may have needed a second look at the goal, but Messi didn’t need any look at all to create it. After Sergio Busquets had played the ball through, the Argentine’s touch took him wide and facing away from goal. Without even glancing up once, however, Messi instinctively knew where Suarez was and lofted a luscious cross onto his head. The Uruguayan headed it back across goal and in, off Luke Shaw.

When the linesman’s flag went up, so did the heckles, as Old Trafford absolutely revelled in taunting the former Liverpool player for celebrating too early.

That in itself was too early. Referee Gianluca Rocchi went to VAR and the goal was predictably given. Suarez was now revelling in it, and it was impossible not to imagine the mischievous figure within the Uruguayan enjoyed the way it played out all the more. That was probably sweeter for him than getting credited with what ultimately went down as an own goal.

 

There was an edge to the game beyond Suarez, though. Both Ashley Young and Busquets were lucky not to get booked early on, and luckier not to get sent off as the game went on further, with the Barca midfielder really guilty of a series of yellow-card offences.

Chris Smalling’s challenge on Messi wasn’t that, but it did help contribute to the sense of aggression in the game. The centre-half shoulder-barged the playmaker as he leapt for an aerial ball, with his flailing hand then catching Messi’s face to draw blood.

Smalling had said “bring it on” as regards the challenge of facing the Argentine before the match, only to then bring it himself.

The great problem for United, though, was that they needed to bring the game to Barca so much more… but couldn’t.

 

Against a side of such quality – and especially such quality in possession – Solskjaer inevitably set up to play on the counter, but the Spanish champions just didn’t offer them the space to do that. That is because, under Ernesto Valverde, they are a much more controlled side; much more minimalist.

Hence they give up so few goals, because it’s not always due to the quality of their defending. They did have a lot of sloppy moments, that were covered up by their ability to then cover space and then kill a passage of play with their passing.

Barca do have a fair few weaknesses for tournament favourites. United just didn’t have the attacking strength to really punish them.

Their attackers, and especially Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku, were dependent on scraps and long shots.

 

It was little surprise that Solskjaer eventually removed Lukaku for someone who could create something out of little in a dribbler like Anthony Martial. The further problem was United were barely getting “little”.

Paul Pogba – on a supposed audition for Real Madrid against their great rivals – meanwhile barely did anything at all.

United were just well short of Barca’s quality.

That was the basic story of this game.

 

It right now doesn’t feel like it is going to be a tie that adds to the lore of United. It didn’t really add to the reputation of this Barca, either.

It’s going to need a significant electrical charge for any of that to change in the second leg.

The site of United’s most famous win now feels set up for one of their most underwhelming eliminations.

 

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