Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s lack of courage costs Manchester United in Europa League final

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One-nil down after an anaemic first-half in a European final on May 26. That date in 1999 is defined by Manchester United substitutions and so it was in 2021. For all the wrong reasons.

For a man who was an inspired substitution as a player, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was uninspiring with his changes as a manager in a European final.

Marcus Rashford was so egregious the stadium compere announced his withdrawal for Daniel James. But it was actually Paul Pogba who made way. Solskjaer was struggling with his switches so much Juan Mata almost did not emerge for the penalty shootout and only did in the 122nd minute.

How gutting for De Gea it could have been his last appearance for the club. Solskjaer’s mismanagement of the goalkeeping situation means the debate will continue well into the summer and Dean Henderson now has the momentum by virtue of having no involvement in a final he was furious not to be selected for.

United had Solskjaer but needed Louis van Gaal to have the bravery to replace the goalkeepers. Spotkicks have always been De Gea’s Kryptonite and no matter how much his teammates tried to gee him up he looked beaten before each one was taken in the 11-10 shootout.

Rashford, overplayed all season, received treatment as James stood in the technical area with his number punched into the fourth official’s board. Rashford had the bottle to convert nervelessly in the shootout but accommodating United’s two attacking academy graduates was Solskjaer’s undoing.

He should know better than anyone the value of having proven forwards in reserve. Yet United’s bench was lacking proven game-changers, or an obvious change. United did not make a single substitution in the 90 minutes and Mata was ignored until penalties loomed.

Twenty-two years on from Barcelona, it went beyond Fergie time for United. They had more recent comebacks to draw on – 12 times they had already recovered from a losing position to win this season – yet against Villarreal this was a final United did not want to concede first in.

Villarreal were obdurate in overcoming Arsenal in the semi-finals and were only undone by immense good fortune that Edinson Cavani took advantage of to equalise. It might have panned out better for United had they not levelled until the hour, the time Solskjaer usually allocates for his first change.

Rashford came into the final with seven goals in 32 games this calendar year. That derisory tally has been offset by Greenwood and Cavani’s goalscoring, as well as Pogba’s influence from the left, only Pogba dropped back into midfield.

As early as the first-half, Rashford was guilty of selfishness, a symptom of trying too hard, and his pot-shots continued into the last 10 minutes of regulation time. Solskjaer, too meek to hook him, clapped enthusiastically after Foyth defeated Rashford in another duel.

There was at least a contribution from Rashford for Cavani’s equaliser, his shot pinballing into the Uruguayan’s zone. There was a nervous wait for the VAR to confirm Cavani was onside and when the referee pointed to the centre circle the adrenaline flowed through cheerleaders Bruno Fernandes and Scott McTominay. The players were not as animated as the supporters.

Pogba beat his chest and whipped up the United fans prior to kick-off. There was an atmosphere but not one worthy of a European final with just 2,000 United supporters sprinkled around the stadium. ‘Attack, attack, attack’, they chanted in unison shortly after Cavani had levelled.

Fred, on the bench through injury, celebrated the breakthrough the wildest in the designated substitutes section with Alex Telles and Lee Grant.

United were ponderous all night and barely improved attacking the goal their followers stood behind in the second-half. Pogba, so talismanic off the left in recent months, was blunt from deep and United’s elite forwards pined for Pogba further afield.

Fernandes ended the first-half complaining to the fourth official before he and Cavani collared French referee Clément Turpin as they re-emerged. Villarreal will have revelled in United players expending energy on a blame-game outside their own bubble.

Rookies Nathan Bishop, Anthony Elanga and Shola Shoretire, all fit, were escorted to their seats in the stands an hour-and-a-half before kick-off. Solskjaer seemingly wanted Maguire nearer the pitch to make himself heard, although the Yorkshireman could have bellowed from row Z and been audible.

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