Can Ole Gunnar Solskjaer crack semi-final conundrum?
Whenever Manchester United and Roma are uttered in the same sentence, you’re instantly transported back to their infamous Champions League quarter-final showdown in 2006/07.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has lost his four previous semi-finals as Manchester United manager; Familiar faces like Chris Smalling, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Edin Dzeko could line up for Roma.
Manchester United have the chance to put their semi-final hoodoo to bed once and for all when they host Roma in the last four of the Europa League on Thursday.
With the Europa League now offering the only chance for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to secure his first piece of silverware as a manager, the United boss will be hoping it is fifth time lucky after defeat in the previous four semi-finals of his tenure at Old Trafford.
“It will be a dream come true the day I can lift a trophy for this club as a manager, of course,” Solskjaer said in his pre-match press conference.
“That’s what we’re building for. We’ve been close, we’re building step by step, but take the next step it’s ifs and buts and this and that. You always talk about that.
“But for this team and myself, our ambition this season is to finish with lifting a trophy and being able to celebrate. I know how much that can mean for a group moving forward.”
Whether it be the two valiant League Cup semi-final defeats to Manchester City, the abject one to Chelsea in last season’s FA Cup, or the bitter setback against Sevilla in last year’s Europa League, United have stumbled at the last hurdle before a final time and again under Solskjaer.
It’s an unwanted knack which has seen United’s wait for a silverware stretch into a concerning fourth year, and there’s a growing sense that now really is the time for Solskjaer to underline the progress he has made at Old Trafford by reaching that first final and getting his hands on that first piece of silverware.
This barren four-year spell that has unfolded since Jose Mourinho guided United to victory in the 2017 Europa League final constitutes the club’s longest trophy drought since 1990 when Sir Alex Ferguson’s FA Cup victory ended a five-year wait for a trophy.
That illusive first trophy opened the floodgates for Ferguson and Manchester United, with trophy after trophy flowing into Old Trafford right up until he announced his retirement in 2013. You just wonder whether this season’s Europa League could have a snowball effect, and be the first of many for Solskjaer.
Standing between Manchester United and a first final under Solskjaer is a Roma side packed full of familiar faces.
Centre-back Chris Smalling spent almost a decade at Old Trafford, winning five major honors, before moving to Roma in 2019, while forward Henrikh Mkhitaryan won two trophies during two somewhat fractious seasons in Manchester.
Both Smalling and Mkhitaryan started for United when they last won a trophy, with the Armenia international’s second-half strike putting the seal on a 2-0 victory over Ajax in the 2017 Europa League final in Stockholm.
Reunions with former teammates aside, there are a number of faces in the Roma camp United won’t be overly pleased to see again.
Striker Edin Dzeko developed the habit of scoring against United during his five-season spell at Manchester City, while former Chelsea forward Pedro famously scored Barcelona’s opening goal in the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley.
Premier League fans will also remember Federico Fazio, formerly of Tottenham, Jordan Veretout, formerly of Aston Villa, and Davide Santon, formerly of Newcastle, who are part of the Paulo Fonseca’s traveling Roma party.
Having weathered an early Paul Scholes red card and left the Stadio Olimpico with a 2-1 first-leg deficit after Wayne Rooney’s crucial away goal, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side returned to an expectant Old Trafford for a mouth-watering return leg against Roma.
But what United’s scintillating run to the last four did do was reinstall belief and lay foundations and ambitions for future success, which were realized the following season when United got their hands back on the Champions League trophy after being Chelsea on penalties in 2008 final in Moscow.
The challenge facing Solskjaer’s squad on Thursday is similar in many ways to his final season as a player, a squad with an abundance of talent and potential is waiting to take that next giant leap. They did that under Ferguson, now it’s over to Solskjaer to repeat the feat.