Belfast Telegraph

Manchester United believe we're still the biggest club in the world, insists Solskjaer

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

By Carl Markham

Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer insists Manchester United believe they are still the biggest club in the world even if they are not currently the best team in their own city.

The Red Devils have to redress the local balance first - starting with a Carabao Cup semi-final first leg at home against their neighbours tonight - before they can even begin to think about re-establishing themselves as the top team in England, Europe and the rest of the planet.

And while the process has been inconsistent under the Norwegian, who as a former Red Devils player knew only superiority over City and the rest of the country, he is confident it will come.

"It is a different time. When the owners came in at City you knew they were going to go for it," he said.

"I'm never surprised by anything in football, and with what they have done they deserve to be where they are.

"We are still in our own heads the biggest club in the world, so of course we want to get back to where we were. It's going to take time.

"You have to go for it at this club, that's what we are here for, to take on the challenges.

"We are Man United. We have been up and we've been down but we've always come back."

While City boss Pep Guardiola has been lauded for rewriting the coaching manual and changing the face of football, Solskjaer insists that is not a panacea for all clubs and United have to approach things differently.

"He has had a big influence, and since he took over at Barcelona I have admired Pep's teams, but I've worked under the most influential (Sir Alex Ferguson)," he added.

"But for me it is great, you do see one of the best managers ever and you can see where he has taken his wisdom from. I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with Johan (Cruyff) back in the day when (his son) Jordi was here and we were friends and you can see similarities."

After a 4-1 win over Newcastle on Boxing Day, Solskjaer said his side could not play 'tippy-tappy' football, although he denied it was a dig at their rivals.

"That tippy-tappy comment was not aimed at them (City), I've never said that about City," he said.

"It was aimed at my players. We have our own style. We need to play with pace and power.

"Traditionally Man United are a team which attacks quickly. We play forward, we run forward and you'd like to have the mix between dominating teams more and still having that penetration. I don't want us playing that type of football, I want us to play 'proper' football."

While he denied he was denigrating City's style, the United boss has had issues with their rival's reputation for 'tactical' fouls, although he does not believe it is restricted to Guardiola's side.

"Sometimes I look at the referee and I look at our games and, even if they are just little fouls, there have been a few teams that have stopped us with those little fouls," he added. "That has stopped us showing how good we are when we want to attack.

"There have been a few fouls on Dan James and I am probably best not talking about it, but referees have to look at it with players of his pace as even if they knock the ball past (defenders) and get stopped in their tracks of course it is a yellow card."

Meanwhile, Solskjaer has noticed Jesse Lingard has toned down his social media activity and believes the midfielder is now starting to regain his form.

While the two may be coincidental, the United boss has spoken to his players about their social media use and Lingard was one of the most prolific.

The 27-year-old was heavily criticised in the summer after he uploaded to Snapchat a crude video of him on holiday, for which he was disciplined by the club.

Lingard did not score a Premier League goal or register an assist in 2019 and has managed just two goals in the last 12 months, against Arsenal in the FA Cup last January and in the Europa League defeat away to Astana in November.

However, his manager has started to see a return to form for the England international.

"I think it (social media) is part of being a Man United player. It is how you come across, I think it is important you do give of yourself but in a positive way and it is football-related," said the United boss. "I do speak to players about how they portray themselves. I don't have social media and never have but it is a different generation.

"Jesse has had his ups and downs, but say the games against (Manchester) City and Tottenham (last month), they are examples of how important he can be for us.

"Of course we want him back scoring goals and making assists, there is no one who runs as much as Jesse, he's a great trigger for us in the pressing.

"He is a lively, bubbly character, (but) I don't think you see as much on social media as you used to do. He's got his head down, working hard. I've known him a few years and he is getting back to the Jesse I knew."

Solskjaer will give the likes of Lingard, Anthony Martial, and Luke Shaw - who all missed United's goalless FA Cup third-round tie at Wolves - and Harry Maguire, who injured a foot in that game, until the last minute to prove their fitness.

"We are going to give them as much time as we can," he added.

Manchester United host Manchester City in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semi-final tie at Old Trafford tonight. Here, Belfast Telegraph Sport looks at some talking points.

United hoping for repeat of December derby win

Given their indifferent form this season and City’s proven strengths, United were expected to struggle when the sides met at the Etihad last month. But City’s biggest weakness, their vulnerability to the counter-attack, played to United’s greatest strength. Utilising the pace of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Daniel James, United tore through City with a number of lightning raids. They could easily have scored more than the two goals they managed in the 2-1 success. City have since been exposed again by Wolves and United may look for more of the same.

Guardiola could change his approach

City boss Pep Guardiola is a man who tends to stick to his principles, regardless of results. He insisted he was happy with his side’s performance against United last time around as, after all, they created more chances and dominated possession. In two-legged ties, however, he does sometimes opt for a more pragmatic approach. With United cutting through City with alarming ease last time, he may well vary tactics.

Another trophy in sight for ambitious City

There is no doubt City will take this seriously. The Premier League title may well have gone but they still have plenty to play for and, having reached this stage, winning the Carabao Cup will be a clear aim. City have dominated this competition in recent years, winning it in four of the past six seasons. Another success would be a third in succession and an 11th major trophy in the past nine years. City have not lost a tie in this Cup since losing to United in the fourth round in October 2016. They did not take their foot off the gas for Burton in last year’s semis, thrashing them 9-0 in the first leg, and there is little chance Guardiola will field a weakened side.

Tough keeper call for United boss Solskjaer

United’s back-up goalkeeper Sergio Romero will have given manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer some food for thought with his performance in the goalless FA Cup draw with Wolves at the weekend. The form of first-choice David de Gea has been a concern. The normally brilliant Spaniard has made a number of uncharacteristic and costly mistakes this season and some observers have suggested dropping him might do him good. Romero has kept six clean sheets in his last eight. It would be a bold call but Romero is certainly applying pressure.

United fitness concerns ahead of huge match

Solskjaer has a number of worries ahead of the game. Defender Harry Maguire is the latest concern having suffered a knock against Wolves. He will be given a fitness test while Jesse Lingard and Martial will hope to overcome illness to feature. United also have a shortage of quality in midfield with Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay injured. City have close to a fully-fit squad with Nicolas Otamendi returning. Only Aymeric Laporte and Leroy Sane remain out but both could return in the near future.

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