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The conspirators at Old Trafford had ignored the man charged with taking them into the Champions League, while it still exists. “I have seen the speculation or news this afternoon,” said Solskjaer, sounding unsure if it was speculation or news.
As their manager, he might have expected to have been informed earlier. As the scorer of one of the most dramatic goals in Champions League history, he might have been offended by their plans to scrap the competition that defined him. He didn’t sound it, though.
A political animal like Jose Mourinho probably would not have been left in the dark, but he would have complained vociferously and quotably if he had been. A United manager who had been aware of everything at every level at the club in his time spoke out. “Talk of a Super League is a move away from 70 years of European club football,” said Sir Alex Ferguson. “Fans all over love the competition as it is. In my time at United, we played in four Champions League finals and they were always the most special of nights.”
Ferguson has not always stood up for the wider good – he supported the Glazers’ takeover – but he is the link to the past and his greatest predecessor, Sir Matt Busby, almost died in his quest for the European Cup, a decade before he eventually won it. “To even contemplate walking away from that competition would be a betrayal of everything his club has ever stood for,” said the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust.
Three of Solskjaer’s old team-mates, Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand and Roy Keane, spoke eloquently and passionately against a breakaway.
Solskjaer did not. Perhaps he was put in an impossible position, with those actually responsible too cowardly to show their voices, but a muted response made him seem the smiling yes-man, too unimportant to be in the loop, too guileless to be lying.
And yet it came after a game that illustrated it is easy to underestimate him.
Perhaps second place in the Premier League counts for nothing when clubs look to ringfence participation in a Super League; maybe United’s late goals against Burnley would not have mattered if they were guaranteed entry to their own competition.
And yet Solskjaer tried to reflect on the sort of sporting achievements that indicate the importance of merit. “We’ve got as many points as last season,” he said. “That’s progress.” United’s 66 points came from 38 games in 2019-20, from just 32 this time around. They only need two more goals to equal their tally from the whole of the last campaign. They have the chance to go better in the continental competitions that, for now, they deign to enter. “We want to finish with a trophy in the Europa League,” said the serial semi-finalist. Instead, they might finish the Europa League.
There are areas of improvement, albeit in an imperfect season and a flawed team; the only unbeaten away record in the division, for instance. A capacity to come from behind that has yielded 28 points from losing positions; on this occasion, United showed the spirit to respond to Burnley’s swift equaliser.
For the second successive Sunday, there were three second-half goals. United now have 14 in the last 10 minutes of games, proof of the “fitness and resilience” that pleased Solskjaer. Once again, there was a goal from a substitute – Edinson Cavani this time – which in turn reflects well on the man who makes the substitutions. Solskjaer has an enduring question of the balance in his team, but the half-time introduction of Cavani for Fred gave United a more attacking reboot. Mason Greenwood’s goals showed the benefits of his faith in youth. The culture of the club – in terms of football, anyway – is better.
All of which feels almost irrelevant when there is an attempt to devalue the meaning of results and rig the game for the benefit of the super-rich.
In a more fair world, that progress should reflect well on Solskjaer but now he knows, he has to give a better answer than: “I can’t really comment.” The man who delivered his club’s greatest moment has to determine what Manchester United actually stands for. He, his peers and his players have a duty to stand up for the sport and sporting integrity, for the Premier League and the Champions League.