Manchester United have regained what they lost ahead of Champions League quarter final draw – Samuel Luckhurst
Had Bayern Munich ejected Liverpool and drawn Manchester United in the Champions League quarter-finals Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might have swapped a Paris bib for his 1999 final tracksuit top. Not that Solskjaer has any preference.
“You can’t really hope for anyone, or not anyone,” Solskjaer said in the Parc des Princes press room last Wednesday. “All of the teams through are quality teams.”
Almost all of the teams claimed coups in the previous round. United defied 106 matches of European Cup history to overturn a 2-0 deficit away from home, Ajax‘s dismantling of Real Madrid rivalled Rashford’s Marc de triomphe and Cristiano Ronaldo continues to hex Atletico Madrid.
Liverpool authoritatively steamrollered Bayern in the Allianz Arena but, in a drama-laden round, it was not as headline-grabbing as the aforementioned trio of comebacks. City’s and Tottenham‘s superb eviscerations of Schalke and Borussia Dortmund were sobering results for German football.
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The team elite clubs’ supporters are crossing their fingers for are Porto or Ajax, both second in their leagues. Porto appear to be more preferable after Ajax instilled some fear across the continent by ridiculing Real at the Bernabeu. At the time of writing, 68 per cent of United followers want Porto.
Bayern may be gone but Solskjaer will not be short of personal narratives. His first European knockout appearance with United was the captivating 4-0 thrashing of Porto in 1997 and he played in six of United’s eight encounters with Juventus between 1996 and 2003. Ajax were United’s second pre-season opponents following Solskjaer‘s £1.5million arrival in 1996 from Molde, with whom Solskjaer beat Ajax in the Europa League in 2015.
Solskjaer made the Scousers cry nearly four years before Diego Forlan, plundered seven goals in 13 against Tottenham and was the last United goalscorer at Maine Road. Barcelona? That was late in May in 1999, but Solskjaer also started in the first enthralling 3-3 draw 20 seasons ago.
United have not played at Camp Nou since their goalless stalemate in the 2008 semi-final first leg but their final humblings against Barcelona in 2009 and – particularly – in 2011 illustrated the complacency that had swept through the club. Guardiola‘s Barca were the only challengers Sir Alex Ferguson never toppled and, should it be the Barca of Messi or City in the last eight, there are fascinating sub-plots in April. Should Solskjaer overcome either and the mythical ‘Spirit of Fergie’ will feel very real.
“We’ve had loads of injuries, suspensions but that was maybe a good thing today, we had a fresh team, loads of energy, and we defend and humble enough to work hard and we had a team to do that.” Solskjaer has an encyclopedic knowledge of his playing career and the United archives are not short of motivational memories from his pomp against United’s seven competitors.
“We went out to a side that’s more successful than Manchester United in last seven years in Europe,” Mourinho scoffed three days after the Sevilla scandal last year. “We went out to a side that has a huge tradition in knockout competitions, a side in the Spanish cup final. We are out to a team that knocked out Atletico Madrid in two legs.” This was Sevilla, fifth in La Liga with a minus six goal difference at the time of their win at United. United have shed that inferiority complex.
United supporters can be forgiven for feeling fated at this premature stage in the Champions League. The unique manner of the PSG comeback sealed a first quarter-final in five years and the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Treble – with Solskjaer ‘at the wheel’ – has the makings of a cracking crescendo. And just like 20 years ago the final is in Spain.
But there will be no Bayern.