Solskjær facing biggest audition at his Theatre of Dreams
Scupper the Scousers and the job could be his, defeat by them and it’s not so certain
A victory would exceed any of the glorious days Ole Gunnar Solskjaer enjoyed at Old Trafford as a player.
Diehard Liverpool fans must have felt the familiar rising dread after hearing Jürgen Klopp’s cheery comments about the startling revival of Manchester United. Sunday’s instalment of the bitter rivalry holds the sense of a coin spinning, with billions of Great British Pounds and future silverware to be determined on how it lands. In short, it feels like a magnificent audition for Ole Gunnar Solskjær to be made permanent manager at Manchester United.
“They were always a threat in specific games but now they are really back on track. Everybody sees that. Good for them,” declared the ever-sunny German on Friday morning ahead of his team’s visit to Old Trafford on Sunday.
There was nothing else that Klopp could say on an eve-of-match-weekend press conference, but nonetheless there was a sense that his magnanimity might come back to haunt him.
Klopp, of course, did not either physically or psychically inhabit old Lancashire in the two decades when United haunted and goaded Liverpool with their habitual accumulation of league titles and through the steely control of Alex Ferguson who made good on his promise to “knock Liverpool off their f**king perch.”
The German may represent the beating heart of Liverpool right now but he can only vaguely guest at the limitless misery United have inflicted on the club and supporters since the inception of the Premier League. For Liverpool fans, observing Manchester United over the past two months feels like having gone along to see a comedy in the cinema only to discover that they were actually watching a horror in disguise.
Before Christmas, as Liverpool entranced their mass support with bewitching, unpredictable football, the delight was doubled by observing the permanently dark cloud that had settled over Old Trafford. The high point came on December 16th, with the 3-1 sacking of United at Anfield, the game which finally brought to a close the mutinous, unhappy reign of Jose Mourinho.
Just five days later, United were unexpectedly back to winning, ransacking Cardiff 5-1 and Huddersfield 3-1 and then Bournemouth 4-1 in a breathtaking reversal of fortune. And on the sideline, a pixie-figure from the Ferguson glory years and a name redolent of an era when United were imperious: Ole Gunnar.
The Norwegian’s arrival seems to have had the magical effect of sending the old certainty and confidence gushing through the club again. The string of wins coincides with a testing period for the always brittle confidence of the Liverpool collective. Nothing disastrous has occurred but small opportunities have passed: the nerviness of their 4-3 win over West Ham; the failure to go seven points clear of Manchester City early in the new year and even the goalless draw at home against Bayern combine to create the nagging sense of an adventure beginning to stall.
The last few games have contained the suggestion that other teams are beginning to figure that simply clogging their own penalty area can stifle the delightful and intricate give-and-go passing game of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino and there is a feeling that Liverpool are stretched right now: that Allison’s early-season assurance is beginning to wane; that the defence is not as error-free as the first four months of the season promised and that maybe the exertion of Klopp’s high-octane pressure game has begun to take its toll.
Liverpool supporters heading up the East Lancs Road to Old Trafford on Sunday morning will have all those doubts and worries bouncing around their minds as they convince themselves that this year, for the first time since the creation of the Premier League in 1992, they have a team capable of seeing this through. Klopp is such an entertaining figure and has assembled such a persuasive team that the cold fact that he has won nothing at Anfield has been glossed over.
But deep down, there is a gnawing truth that even Blackburn and Leicester have managed what Liverpool, once the standard bearers of league know-how, have ultimately failed: to win the Premier title. Defeat on Sunday would not derail Liverpool’s title ambitions but it would erase the slender points advantage they hold and would reduce them to a position of hope more than belief.
The worst nightmare for the Liverpool faithful is that a win for United on Sunday would leave the case for giving Solskjær the role on a permanent basis. Klopp has already given a public endorsement, predicting that the Norwegian will definitely be in charge next season. And what if he proves to be the right man: the successor that United have been desperately seeking? Solskjær is an outlier: a stubborn presence and willing substitute under Ferguson, whose influence he absorbed and left him, he said at his first press conference, “making all the notes of what he did during certain situations”.
The manner in which he instantly persuaded United’s lavish if directionless squad to roar into life gives rise to another appalling vista for Liverpool: that ultimately, their rivals are well equipped to begin challenging for major honours next year and may soon re-assert themselves as Manchester City’s chief antagonists. The bitterest irony will be, if through inflicting the defeat that led to the dismissal of Mourinho, Liverpool inadvertently helped their bitterest rival to stumble upon the man with the qualities to guide Manchester United through the post-Ferguson era.
Solskjær has played a brilliantly shrew hand from the beginning - delighted that the opportunity had fallen his way, humble, eager, expecting or demanding nothing from the United executive and all the time lightly associating himself with United’s halcyon years. And with every shining result, he came to look more plausible and natural, that familiar Middle Earth expression, standing there on the sideline. Oof course, how could we not have seen it before . . . Fergie’s favourite Scandinavian. If he can beat the ‘Pool: if he can scupper Scouse conceits and title dreams in 90 minutes, then the job must be his . . .
It seems unreasonable and daft that all of these possibilities hinge on the results of one match. But football management is a daft business. If Klopp’s Liverpool can rediscover the swagger and nonchalant goal-scoring capacity and produce a performance to silence Old Trafford, then Solskjær’s inexperience and his disastrous period in charge at Cardiff may well come under tougher scrutiny. A victory, however, would exceed any of the glorious days he enjoyed at Old Trafford as a player, as an assassin; as the saviour of many days.