Reality has hit the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer dream express like a stalled car on a level crossing. No one can be that surprised.
The run United went on when their hero of ’99 stepped in to replace the assassin-faced baby Jose Mourinho snapped a ton of records – the best start for a United manager ever, the most consecutive away wins in the club’s history, the warmest, fuzziest feeling at Old Trafford since Fergie told everyone they had to stand behind the new manager – and was never sustainable. The worry for United supporters, however, must be that it was a freakish run and now they’ve got a man in charge whose last trophy was the Norwegian Cup in 2013.
If he didn’t have the “understands the club inside out” wildcard, he wouldn’t be within Nemanja Matic’s turning circle of the job.
Add in the funny stuff going on with Mike Phelan’s triumphant full-time return from the land of Oz, where that fits in with the mooted Director of Football, and the swathes of players who’ve now reverted to their previous form after the Ole unshackling, and you’d wonder how things will look during the summer if United miss out on the top four.
— Chris Wheeler (@ChrisWheelerDM) April 4, 2019
One way to alleviate those concerns would be to go and win the Champions League, though they’ll be doing well to make the semi-finals if the odds are anything to go by. They’re rated as 23/10 shots to squeak past Barca, and 16/1 to win the whole bloody thing. Turning over PSG, no matter how fortunate, ought to have seen the side spilling over with confidence, but that game in Paris seems to have marked the breaking point in the Solskjaer spell.
Three defeats in four and a very dicey win at home over Watford do not make this team look likely to repeat the magic of the last 16. Having kept four clean-sheets in five before, they’ve not stopped any of their last seven opponents from scoring.
Lionel Messi will be licking his proverbial chops when he looks at this United defence.
He’s scored ten goals in last 6 games and seems to just get better and better. Barcelona are not the force they once were but they’re still more than capable of dispatching weaker opponents, and United are fortunate to be at this stage. Thomas Tuchel, Kylian Mbappe and the cursed Neymar must surely be ruing their failure to finish the previous round’s tie in the first leg when United were ragged in the second half and, but for David de Gea and some wasteful finishing, would’ve been out of the tie whatever they did in Paris.
Can they get lucky again? Sure. Are Barcelona likely to be as fragile as PSG. No. Barca should win this comfortably but aren’t watertight defensively, so, with Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial’s pace and Paul Pogba getting another window to impress Zizou, United will fancy their chances of scoring at least. they also can’t expect the kind of awayday heroics at the Nou Camp they enjoyed at the Parc des Princes, so they need to get something in this game. Barca to win and Both Teams to Score makes a lot of sense at 5/2.
While United weren’t fancied to get through in the last round, Ajax were an afterthought for many even before the first leg in Amsterdam. Madrid won that, and Sergio Ramos, with the kind of arrogance that comes with having a medal from every major competition in the game, deliberately picked up a suspension he was so confident his side were already through to the next round.
The Dutch side made a fool of him in the second leg, shredding his colleagues in a 4-l flaying that will go down in history as one of the shock Champions League results.
What’d be even more staggering is if the Netherlands champions could emulate their illustrious sides of the nineties and seventies by fighting against the tides of modern football to lift a fifth European Cup.
Where youngsters Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt have cornered much of the attention because they fit into the story of Ajax’s famous production line, the team has a good balance of youth and experience, with Daley Blind and Dusan Tadic two discarded Premier League names playing a role in their success, while Hakim Ziyech, Nicolás Tagliafico and Lasse Schöne are all experienced players at this stage too.
The truth about the last 16 round is that Madrid were fortunate to get anything from the first leg. A VAR decision gave them a massive break in the first half and they capitalised on it in the second, but Ajax were clearly the better side in that game and didn’t give in when they went to the Bernabeu.
Now it falls to Juventus to deal with these upstarts. Ronaldo is in the squad, though how fit he is will still be a point of some discussion for this game. They pulled off their own spectacular turnaround in the previous round – it seems like the Champions League is delivering more comebacks every year now – when they flipped a 2-0 away loss to Atletico Madrid into a 3-2 aggregate victory thanks to their Portuguese talisman’s timely hat-trick.
That result is all the more impressive given Atleti’s generally resolute defence.
What you’d wonder is if the Italians might just take this Ajax tie for granted. Madrid have endured a shambolic season and the 4-1 loss certainly sits easily in the pattern of their campaign. Plenty will see the previous round as a sign of their decline rather than Ajax’s rise, but their performance in the first leg of that tie should be a warning to the Bianconeri.
They could put in a performance, but it seems reasonable to think this’ll be a tough test for Max Allegri’s side. Ajax have scored 12 goals in their last three games domestically – ok, it’s Holland, but they’re not sitting back – and they appeal above evens on the Draw No Bet. Even if it’s a draw, you’ll get to keep the return on the United game too.
*All odds correct at time of posting