Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said this week that winning the Europa League wouldn’t necessarily prove that Manchester United are making progress, but results like this are a good indicator.
Solskjaer’s argument is that a trophy can cover up the cracks, but the way his team won 1-0 against Milan on Thursday in their own backyard to advance to the quarter-finals should make the Norwegian believe their players learning how to win big games when it counts most.
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Paul Pogba, who was substituted on at half time, was the match winner with a clever goal at the start of the second half. He went missing for six weeks with a hamstring injury in which United only won five of their ten games.
“If you win an away game in a stadium like this, you will be very happy against a team like this,” said Solskjaer. “We started very well in the first 20 minutes. We looked like a very good team, then a break from halfway through the first half to halfway when we rushed, lost the ball too many times and it turned into a long game We just had it. ” to bring up a few things, and by the second half I thought we’d be better.
“Let’s see who we get in the next draw. We’re really happy today because we beat a historically fantastic club and a very good team that is really on the way up. So very happy with everyone and of course we want to . ” go all the way – it was hard to lose in last season’s semifinals. “
Make no mistake, Solskjaer is aiming to win the Europa League this season but on Wednesday he firmly believed that winning an old trophy would not be a sign of progress alone.
He didn’t say it, but he could easily have talked about winning the 2016 FA Cup under Louis van Gaal or winning the League Cup and Europa League under Jose Mourinho in 2017.
Arsenal, also in the quarter-finals, won the FA Cup last season but are currently 10th in the Premier League. You won’t find many Arsenal fans saying “we’re back” and Solskjaer doesn’t think United is either, but the San Siro win over the Serie A team is proof they are on are on the right track.
Solskjaer has beaten Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea since taking office as coach, but his team struggles when the stakes are at their highest. They have suffered four semi-finals defeats but with an early Europa League exit in Milan they showed the maturity and composure to face a difficult European night.
Pogba’s goal – a nifty clip about Gianluigi Donnarumma after he misled Milan goalkeeper for the first time – less than three minutes after Marcus Rashford’s move made the difference.
“Paul looked like he’d been gone six weeks,” said Solskjaer. “He worked hard but when you play it’s different. He couldn’t play more than 45 minutes but he’s getting better and that’s a big boost to have him back. We know his qualities.”
The Frenchman, who played on the left, was great when his comeback canceled United after a disjointed performance in the first half. After that, Luke Shaw branded the first 45 minutes as “awful”.
Fred and Victor Lindelof were excellent and Dean Henderson further strengthened his case and became number 1 with a wonderful save to stop Zlatan Ibrahimovic from equalizing.
Paul Scholes, who works as an expert on BT Sports, believes Henderson should now replace David De Gea as the first choice.
“It was a great rescue,” said Solskjaer. “Dean always gives us everything. It starts over with the push, really high-energy push, and the back six plus the goalkeeper, we know what they can do.” So very happy with our defensive foundation – that gives you the platform to win games. “
“We pushed from the front, a great attitude to defend from the top four and of course we drilled the back four, but it’s a team effort and the coaches really really worked on details that we improve in every game . ” . “
Before kick-off, Scholes said he was “concerned” for United, but even after the goal, they didn’t fall back to defend the edge of their box but instead showed the calm and quality to control the second half.
It was United’s first win at San Siro since a 3-2 Champions League win in 2010 – a time when they were one of the best teams in Europe, reaching the finals three times in four years between 2008 and 2011.
Solskjaer still has a lot to do to bring his team back to this level, but it is the standard he is aiming for. Results like this take it a tiny step closer.