Solskjaer faces Barca test; Juve line up CR7 for Ajax - GulfToday

Solskjaer faces Barca test; Juve line up CR7 for Ajax


Manchester United’s players attend a training session at the Carrington training ground on the eve of their Champions League match against Barcelona. Agence France-Presse

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer enjoyed a charmed life as interim Manchester United manager but Barcelona’s visit to Old Trafford on Wednesday will show him the scale of the task he faces as the new full-time boss.

The Norwegian was rewarded with a three-year deal after dramatically reviving United’s fortunes since taking caretaker charge in December, lifting them back into contention for a top-four place and transforming the mood at the club.

The highlight of his reign so far was a dramatic 3-1 away victory over Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 in the Champions League, which enabled United to overturn a 2-0 first-leg defeat to reach the quarter-finals on away goals.

Solskjaer has given his creative players licence to attack, with Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford let off the leash to devastating effect.

But some of the gloss has come off in recent weeks, with three defeats in four matches badly denting United’s chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League and dumping them out of the FA Cup.

Solskjaer, who famously scored the winning goal for United against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final in Barcelona, was upbeat after drawing the Spanish league leaders in the quarter-finals last month, before he was confirmed as the new long-term boss.

“We want these games against the biggest clubs and the biggest teams. We had the final against them in 2009 and 2011 (both of which Barca won) and the semi-final in 2008 when Scholesy (Paul Scholes) scored,” Solskjaer said.

Worryingly for Solskjaer, though, some of United’s familiar failings under Jose Mourinho have returned to haunt them in the weeks since the draw was made. The 46-year-old will probably be forgiven if United fall short against a Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona.

But if he fails to reverse the mini-slump and United suffer a heavy defeat to the Spanish champions there is a danger the season could peter out and momentum could be lost.

Solskjaer will lead his team out at Old Trafford on Wednesday for their first Champions League quarter-final since 2014 with the same never-say-die attitude he had as a player.

Meanwhile, United are tasked with containing the might of Luis Suarez in Europe. The image of Lionel Messi’s partner-in-chief has been defined by his darker side, a relentless, ferocious and, occasionally, misguided opponent, running defenders ragged for the best part of a decade.

When Barca’s coach Ernesto Valverde is asked about the threat posed by Suarez, the description he oftens reverts to is “un dolor de cabeza”. A headache.

Suarez returns to Old Trafford on Wednesday in the last 16 of the Champions League, the tournament Barcelona crave success in this season more than any other.

Cristiano Ronaldo meanwhile is back from injury after being named in Juventus’ squad for Wednesday’s away Champions League quarter-final match against Ajax.

Ronaldo hasn’t played for the Serie A leaders -- who are just one point away from sealing an eighth Italian league title -- since scoring the sensational hat-trick that saw Juve come back from a 2-0 first-leg deficit to knock out Atletico Madrid last month.

But the Portugal captain was named in Massimiliano Allegri’s 21-man Champions League squad.

Giorgio Chiellini misses out due to a left calf contracture while Emre Can also stays in Italy after straining his right ankle in the 2-1 Serie A victory over AC Milan on Saturday.

In the wake of Ajax’s stunning victory against holders Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16, the headlines across Europe were mainly about the new golden generation emerging in Amsterdam.

Ajax are into their first Champions League quarter-final since 2003 with a team packed with products of their famed youth system.

Midfielder Frenkie de Jong, aged 21 and headed for Barcelona at the end of the season, and 19-year-old defender Matthijs de Ligt are the brightest young stars in a side that triumphed 4-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu.

However, the most decisive player in this Champions League campaign for Ajax -- which continues into Wednesday’s quarter-final first leg against Juventus -- is a grizzled veteran by comparison.

Dusan Tadic, at 30, was the oldest member of coach Erik ten Hag’s line-up in Madrid, with the sole exception of 32-year-old Dane Lasse Schoene.

The Serbian international attacker scored one of their goals in Spain, and now has nine altogether in a continental campaign that started with a second qualifying-round win over Sturm Graz.

The goal apart, Tadic’s display in Madrid will be best remembered for that moment in the first half when he escaped Casemiro with a sensational turn.

“As time goes by we will realise what we did, but now we just want to enjoy our football and these things will come. It’s really special,” said Tadic after that match.

Agence France-Presse

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