Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is determined to make the most of these strange circumstances and lift the Europa League at the end of a competition that has provided the “perfect” platform for Manchester United’s development.
After trips to Holland, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Belgium and Austria, the Red Devils have arrived in Germany searching for continental silverware in a new-look final-eight tournament.
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, empty stadiums will play host to single-leg ties in a frantic period in North Rhine-Westphalia, where United kick off the mini-tournament with a quarter-final against FC Copenhagen in Cologne on Monday evening.
The United squad will have to stay in a bubble as long as they remain in the competition, with Solskjaer hoping they can go all the way to the final on August 21.
🗣 "We went into this season knowing the Europa League was a great chance to go far in a tournament and develop some youngsters," says the boss.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) August 9, 2020
“I think it is strange and it is not football as it should be – I think it’s changed a little bit,” said the United boss, who did his study visit with Copenhagen counterpart Stale Solbakken when doing his pro licence in 2011.
“That little bit of passion and edge to the game is missing because the fans have got to be there.
“But I have to commend our players. They’ve handled the situation really well and I know our fans can’t wait to get back to Old Trafford and support us.
“We’ll just have to try to make the most of this Europa League now and hopefully get as far as we can, so they are looking forward even more to seeing the players.”
The view inside the stadium in Cologne, where #MUFC will play FC Copenhagen in tomorrow’s #UEL quarter-final. They would be back at the same ground for the semi-final & final pic.twitter.com/fSriXfH1LP
— Simon Peach (@SimonPeach) August 9, 2020
Solskjaer’s determination to win his first trophy as manager is clear, but United’s third-placed Premier League finish and subsequent Champions League qualification has slightly eased the pressure.
And, while every season away from European football’s top table is a gut punch for the Old Trafford giants, Solskjaer believes this Europa League campaign has aided his side’s development.
“We went into this season knowing that Europa League is a great chance for us one to get a trophy, to get far in a tournament,” Solskjaer said.
“But also to groom a few of the youngsters and it was perfect for us.
🗣 Brandon Williams: "It's been a crazy season for me and my family; I started the season in the Reserves and now I'm playing for the first team.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) August 9, 2020
“I think if we’d been in the Champions League this season – of course we all want to be the Champions League – I probably or maybe wouldn’t have had the chance to play the likes of Brandon (Williams) as much as we have, Mason (Greenwood) – so many of the young kids who have now started what’s going to be fantastic careers.
“The Europa League has also been about that as well.
“It’s about keeping the squad together, have a group that is working together and giving people chances. When they take them – Brandon is going to play in a quarter-final in the Europa League.
“It’s a great achievement for him this season and it’s a perfect for us.”
Williams will start with Luke Shaw absent through injury, while Phil Jones and Axel Tuanzebe are the only other first-team players sidelined.
Solskjaer has a decision to make when it comes to goalkeeper, with Sergio Romero tending to play in this competition instead of first choice David De Gea.
Longer term there is another headache to deal with given how Dean Henderson has shone on loan at Sheffield United.
“That’s an obvious question because I think I must be the most privileged manager in the world with the goalkeeping department,” Solskjaer said.
“We’ve got Sergio, David and we’ve got Dean Henderson as well coming back, so you’ve got three top, top keepers.
“This season has shown again how important Sergio has been for us and, for me, also David’s been always performing there.
“So, we’ll see what we do for the rest of the season and going forward.
“Difficult, yeah, of course it is. But that’s a nice problem to have.”
Another positive is the happiness of Paul Pogba, who on this day in 2016 returned to Old Trafford from Juventus in a then world-record deal.
“I’ve answered numerous questions on Paul,” Solskjaer said. “We’re delighted he’s back playing, he’s fit, he’s enjoying his football. Of course, he’s got to make up for lost time and he is trying to do that.
“He is training extra. He’s always a great personality in and around the place, and hopefully we can see him lift this trophy that he’s done before.
“He’s professional, he’s a fantastic boy and I’m delighted that we’ve got him in the team.”