Ole Gunnar Solskjaer set up this Europa League meeting with Sevilla by insisting “semi-finals are not good enough for Manchester United”. They are certainly not good enough when you keep losing them.
Sevilla’s 2-1 win in Cologne was the third time this season that manager Solskjaer and his Manchester United team have failed in the last four, following on from the Carabao Cup exit against Manchester City and the David de Gea-driven FA Cup defeat by Chelsea at Wembley.
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Lack of ruthlessness must be addressed
It sums up this United side who have been exposed as nearly men – Solskjaer’s first full campaign as Manchester United manager given respectability by finishing third in the Premier League with a recovery built on the signing of the outstanding Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon in January.
In reality, a top-four place with its reward of a spot in next season’s Champions League must be the minimum requirement for a club of Manchester United’s status and ambition. Solskjaer will understand that as well as anyone.
United have now gone three seasons without a trophy for the first time in more than 30 years. As United let the pain of defeat sink in, several clues emerged as to their weaknesses and how they must be addressed.
It was easy to see why Solskjaer craves the added pace and creativity of Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, as superiority and chances were wasted in a siege at the start of the second half when he would have backed Anthony Martial to beat Sevilla’s excellent keeper Yassine Bounou with at least one of the opportunities he had.
United’s lack of ruthlessness always risked haunting them against Sevilla, the Europa League specialists who won the tournament three times in succession not so long ago, and they paid the heaviest price when former Newcastle United forward Luuk de Jong swept in a cross from Jesus Navas, once of Manchester City with 12 minutes remaining.
And what a mess that was for Manchester United
What Victor Lindelof and Aaron Wan-Bissaka were doing, ball watching and generally allowing De Jong a free run for the winner, only they will know.
It was a lapse that had unedifying recriminations as Fernandes angrily confronted Lindelof, who did not take the lecture lying down. Frustration yes, but it was all too late.
Solskjaer’s desire for reinforcements was also illustrated by his refusal to make substitutions until very late. Too late as it turned out.
Juan Mata, Daniel James and Timothy Fosu-Mensah were introduced with three minutes of normal time left, striker Odion Ighalo at the start of six minutes of stoppage time.
Solskjaer should have acted earlier but the fact he did not suggests he had no real faith in those behind him on the bench to change a Europa League semi-final that was getting away from Manchester United.
These are the sort of things he will be expecting United’s transfer negotiators and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to put right in these next few weeks.
And what about De Gea’s position in goal?
De Gea was surprisingly restored ahead of Sergio Romero in Cologne. It was a surprise because the Argentine has figured prominently in United’s Europa League campaign while De Gea’s last semi-final was an unmitigated personal nightmare against Chelsea in the FA Cup.
It looks as if the Spain international will have Dean Henderson back from a successful loan spell at Sheffield United to breathe down his neck, with the Blades trying to complete an £18.5m deal for Bournemouth’s Aaron Ramsdale.
De Gea, who was not at fault here it must be stressed, must now step up in the face of improved and increased competition, which will be to Solskjaer and Manchester United’s benefit.
Manchester United have plenty going for them, such as the emerging midfield partnership of Fernandes and Paul Pogba and an attack of pace and variety in the shape of Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood – with the possibility of Sancho still to come.
The record this season shows, however, that Manchester United have not come up with the goods in the cups when the pressure is on and are light years behind champions Liverpool in the Premier League, finishing 33 points adrift of Jurgen Klopp’s champions.
Nearly is nowhere near good enough for Manchester United and Solskjaer has missed out on the opportunity to secure that vital first piece of silverware.
A top-four place and Champions League football provides a measure of optimism and momentum – but this latest failure shows Manchester United still have a long way to go.
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