It’s no secret that football is very much a game of cliches, with the biggest one being: ‘the next match is simply must-win.’
It’s trotted out time and time again, carrying truth on rare occasion.
This week however, with Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer firmly under the spotlight, it couldn’t be more accurate.
United are faltering, there are no two ways about it. Three of the last four matches have ended in defeat, while the Red Devils got their European run off to the worst possible start.
This season was, and still is, viewed as a real chance for United, equipped with some rather outrageous summer signings, to make a tilt for the Champions League and put themselves back atop Europe’s perch.
It’s been a bad few weeks for Manchester United and a home defeat by Villarreal is unthinkable
Optimism was boosted tenfold when it emerged United were to be dealt one of the kindest groups in the competition, with Atalanta, Villarreal and a certain Swiss outfit Young Boys to contend with.
Alas, an opening day defeat by the underdogs from Switzerland badly upset the apple cart.
Now, with Villarreal arriving at Old Trafford, it’s make or break time. Defeat for Solskjaer tonight hardly bears thinking about.
Plenty of familiarity will be on show as the ball gets rolling under the lights in Manchester. It has been just over four months since the Europa League final, in which Villarreal were expected to be blown away by United’s superiority on the big stage.
Of course, with Europa League master Unai Emery at the helm, this did not happen.
Winning the match on penalties, Villarreal broke United hearts and hurled Solskjaer very much into the firing line.
It was a prime opportunity to get a first piece of silverware under his belt as United manager, and Solskjaer in many corners was viewed as having bottled the occasion.
Villarreal rose to the occasion four months ago and won the Europa League against all odds
United were pedestrian in midfield, hesitant in defence and rather toothless in attack. A club that had been craving a return to major European finals simply forgot its lines on performance night.
For Villarreal, the night was immediately etched into club folklore.
A first major trophy and an incredible run to the final in doing so. Parties went long into the night back in Spain as Villarreal showed the strength of character United had lacked to get the win over the line.
A saving grace for Solskjaer came in the form of the transfer window, with yet more patience afforded to the manager with the chance to bring in new faces on the horizon.
Now, after recruiting the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Raphael Varane – while also successfully concluding a two-year pursuit of Jadon Sancho, there are no excuses to hide behind. Solskjaer must deliver.
What must change
At Old Trafford United will be blessed with the return of fans and a simmering cauldron of an atmosphere.
Home hostility will be key in getting a result over Emery’s Yellow Submarine, who have been in rather dismal form since their Europa League heroics.
While United haven’t been great in recent weeks, over in LaLiga Villarreal sit 11th in the table with just one victory to their name.
United set up poorly against Villarreal in Gdansk and failed to impose themselves on the match
Indeed, the Spaniards have played 15 matches since the final, winning only once while drawing nine times and losing five.
Consistent form isn’t there, though Villarreal will enter the match off the back of a confidence boosting goalless draw with league leaders Real Madrid, and a 4-1 win over Getafe prior to this.
United however must capitalise upon this disjointed rhythm of their opponents quickly.
Upon realising that they could not counter in behind Villarreal during the Gdansk final, United appeared to come unstuck.
It is common knowledge that manager Emery can be an astute and calculated tactician, particularly on big European nights, and United quickly ran out of answers despite having the better side, man-for-man, all over the pitch.
This time around Solskjaer will be acutely aware that his side must dictate the tempo and flow of the game, while allowing the likes of Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba to run the show, feeding the likes of Ronaldo in beyond the back line.
A draw would serve little use to United, given the importance of making a big impression on the group early doors.
Options and defensive dilemmas
United’s options aren’t looking too healthy, given recent injuries to first choice defensive duo Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire.
Both stars have sat out of training this week with the Champions League showdown looming, and it has emerged that Maguire will be sidelined for at least a few weeks.
All signs therefore are pointing to new boy Raphael Varane leading from the heart of defence with all of his European experience, while being partnered by a new deputy.
The absence of Harry Maguire will be strongly felt at the heart of United’s defence
Victor Lindelof is thought to be Solskjaer’s preferred third option at centre-back, ahead of Eric Bailly and Phil Jones who is still working his way to match fitness following a vast stretch on the touchline.
Both Lindelof and Bailly are naturally right-footed and would likely have preference to operate as the right-sided centre-back, meaning Varane will have to switch over into captain Maguire’s usual spot.
It could make for an interesting night of observation, given Lindelof will likely be given the nod to feature alongside the man who recently replaced him, while being expected to shake off the ring-rust and perform on the highest level immediately.
Speaking in his pre-match press conference this week, however, Solskjaer suggested Shaw could feature after having had a little time to rest.
The United boss said: ‘Luke has been in today so I’ll give him a chance to be involved, he didn’t train with the team.
‘Luke, we might give a chance, but he didn’t train this morning. So maybe the best-case scenario is he will join us on the bench.’
Luke Shaw was forced off against Aston Villa though has an outside chance of featuring still
It’s positive news, given how much United have benefitted from in-form full backs over the past 12 months. On the opposite flank however Aaron Wan-Bissaka will be missing after having his European ban extended to two matches.
The former Crystal Palace man received a straight red card in the 35th minute of his side’s shock loss to Young Boys earlier this month, with the mandatory one-match ban then increased for ‘rough play’, meaning he will miss next month’s home clash with Atalanta in addition to the Villarreal showdown.
Now, in the days leading up to the Villarreal showdown, Solskjaer has sifted through the depth of his squad and is likely to call upon the services of Alex Telles and Diogo Dalot – the latter of which spent last season on loan with AC Milan.
Last chance saloon?
There really is little place else Solskjaer can hide these days.
To be fair to United’s Norwegian boss, he regularly fronts up and has been seen taking the brunt of responsibility in recent weeks, as the poor results have stacked up.
A last-gasp victory away to West Ham, largely aided by a Mark Noble penalty miss, was quickly followed by a lacklustre defeat to the Hammers just days later in the cup.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows the pressure is higher than ever before this season
Since the 1-0 loss to Aston Villa has served as a hammer blow, with Fernandes’ skyward penalty deep into added time neatly summarising United’s current malaise.
Pressure is showing and cracks are emerging. Solskjaer’s press conference outburst in which he aimed barbs at Jurgen Klopp and cycled back to last season when the Liverpool boss spoke of United being awarded penalties, revealed a man very much on the edge.
While Solskjaer has been heavily criticised by football fans and pundits alike, he has regularly been able to provide evidence of slow but steady United progression, with last season’s second-place finish a tidy example.
Yet now the reality has dawned. Solskjaer can ill-afford to be the manager who finally brought Ronaldo back home to Old Trafford… only to go on and win nothing on the trophy front.
Solskjaer cannot afford to be the manager who brought Ronaldo home, only to win no trophies
It’s unthinkable, and all conclusions point in the same direction – it’s the big time or bust this season.
United must win some form of trophy and what better way to start than with the Champions League, with the competition’s most prolific star Ronaldo at the helm.
It’s a fanciful thought, yet one that could be almost immediately extinguished if Villarreal do a job over United once again.
The cards are on the table, now United must reveal a winning hand.