Now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s rebuild of Manchester United can really begin.
Following their exit from the Champions League, Solskjaer and United set their sights on a top-four finish, starting with Sunday’s tricky tie at Goodison Park versus Everton.
Simply put, Manchester United (19-7-7) were outclassed in their quarterfinal Champions League tie versus Barcelona, losing 4-0 on aggregate after Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat at Camp Nou. Lionel Messi’s first-half brace after United squandered an early chance effectively killed off the match, but it was also clear throughout those 180 minutes United are a work in progress under Solskjaer and reinforcements across the board are necessary if they are to once again compete for the Premier League title against eternal rivals City and Liverpool.
“We did well to get here and we could see the difference between the two teams. The quality of finishing was outstanding,” Solskjaer told BT Sport post-match. “We started well for the first 15 minutes and we thought we’ve got something here, and then in four minutes they scored two goals which made it so hard. The attitude was right. We knew we were fighting against a good team with good players. We know there’s work to do. We’ve said all along that this won’t change overnight and the next few years will be massive to get to the level teams like Barcelona are at.”
There is no denying United have star power throughout their roster in keeper David De Gea, midfielder Paul Pogba and attackers Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, and Anthony Martial, but there does not seem to be a sense of permanency with the exception of Martial, who put pen to paper on an extension through 2024 in January.
Both De Gea and Rashford are under contract through 2020, with United chairman Ed Woodward trying to extend both. De Gea will likely be the more difficult of the two considering reports he wants to be the highest paid player on the side – a somewhat justifiable stance given his overall quality – but Rashford is an important piece of the puzzle as well because he came up through United’s academy.
Pogba has been equal parts sizzle and fizzle, though he has shown more of the former since Solskjaer took over, while Lukaku has yet to truly find his spot in Solskjaer’s offensive scheme despite increasing his productivity since Jose Mourinho was sacked.
How these pieces gel together for the final five matches in vying for a top-four finish could go a long way in determining how United operate in the summer transfer window and whether they are buyers or sellers.
“We need to get the best out of each other, create an environment of a top, top, top class attitude every single day,” Solskjaer added. “At the moment, we’ve really, really done well to get to the quarter-finals and challenge for the top four. It’s a rebuilding job but it starts with the coaches, and then the players. One or two additions to the squad will happen in the summer.”
United will again be without left back Luke Shaw, who will serve the second of his two-match ban for accruing 10 yellow cards. Alexis Sanchez could be in line for more playing time after a late runout versus Barcelona, while holding midfielder Nemanja Matic could be ready for a return to the first XI after a four-game absence through injury and illness.
If Lukaku does play, it will be his first match time at Goodison Park since his £75 million move to United before the start of last season. He had a goal and an assist in the first meeting last term at Old Trafford and was a substitute in the reverse fixture this season, a 2-1 victory for Manchester United.
As United vie for a top-four spot, Everton (13-7-14) are in the hunt for seventh, a spot that comes with the reward of entering the Europa League in the qualifying rounds provided Watford does not beat Manchester City in the FA Cup final next month. The Toffees had their best run of play this season come to an unexpected end last weekend, losing 2-0 at relegation-bound Fulham to end a three-match winning streak.
“We had a very good run before the last game and were playing well,” midfielder Idrissa Gueye told the club’s official website. “Now we must aim to get back to that level. It will be a tough game against United, but we are just focused on our team. We play at home and everyone knows it is hard for opposing team to come here and win.
“We will try our best to keep our good run at Goodison.”
Everton has had positive results against the top six at home of late, following up a scoreless draw versus Merseyside rivals Liverpool with wins over Chelsea and Arsenal. Overall, the Toffees have taken nine points (2-3-5) from their 10 matches against the “Big Six,” with a date at the renovated White Hart Lane versus Tottenham Hotspur also part of their run-in.
Everton boss Marco Silva will have to make at least one change to his starting 11 as Gueye’s midfield partner Andre Gomes will begin serving his three-match ban for his stamp of Fulham striker Aleksander Mitrovic last weekend. Silva does not lack for options, with Morgan Schneiderlin leading the list of choices.
United have won three straight over Everton and are unbeaten in their last eight (6-2-0) between the sides in all competitions. They are 2-1-0 in their last three at Goodison Park after losing the previous three league matches there.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Everton 1, Manchester United 1.
(Jesse Lingard photo courtesy Manchester United official Twitter account)