Manchester United progressed into the Europa League quarter-finals with a 1-0 win over AC Milan at San Siro, thanks to Paul Pogba’s substitute heroics.
The Frenchman scored just three minutes after coming on as a half-time substitute in his first appearance since going off with a hamstring injury in January’s 3-3 draw with Everton. A poor first half was flipped on its head as Pogba‘s presence helped to settle the team and saw them take the win rather comfortably in the end.
It means they progress to the quarter-finals for the eighth time in eight attempts in a cup competition under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but they’re still yet to even reach a final under him. That must change, starting with the Europa League this season.
The Reds will be joined in the last eight by Ajax, Arsenal, Dinamo Zagreb, Granada, AS Roma, Slavia Prague and Villarreal, making them the strong favourites to win the competition for the first time since 2017 under Jose Mourinho.
They’re now in a position where the pressure is on them as the expectation is that they should win the tournament, but that pressure should be welcomed because it means they’re considered a good team.
In the past, United have been expected to do well in cup competitions and failed to do so because of the pressure, with last season’s Europa League semi-final against Sevilla coming to the front of the mind immediately.
They had the better squad, the better individual players and arguably the better chances on the day and yet they crashed out at the semi-final stage again. There’s seemingly a mental block on Ole’s squad and it’s time they put it to rest.
With Manchester United approaching four years since winning their last trophy, they need a cup to show some sort of progression under him.
They’re clearly in the best place they’ve been in since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson way back in 2013 but with nothing tangible to show for it, it doesn’t mean much. On the pitch they have a togetherness and a clear plan of how to improve, while they’ve finally started to fix the structure of the club behind the scenes to help mould their future.
They need to now supplement that with success and they won’t have a better opportunity than this season’s Europa League.
No matter who they’re paired with in the quarter-final and semi-final draw on Friday afternoon, they will be favourites. Ideally they’d want to avoid the stronger sides like Roma or Arsenal, but they should take real confidence from the fact they were able to eliminate Milan and Real Sociedad in their two knockout ties so far – with many believing they’ve had the toughest draws.
Should they come up against one of Arsenal and Roma, their chances may be a bit slimmer but it would still be considered an upset should they be eliminated, and that goes for any other team too.
So much so that if Manchester United now don’t win the competition, it should be considered as a failure on Solskjaer’s behalf.
They have by far the best squad, again. By far the best players, again. By far the most quality, again. But now they have the added experience of having been in the position before and knowing what they put out previously wasn’t good enough.
Obviously anything can happen in football and there is always the chance of a shock in a cup competition, but Manchester United need to take a leaf out of their history and be relentless in their pursuit of glory.
Top four in the Premier League is essentially sealed now barring a huge collapse and the FA Cup presents another good opportunity to win a trophy, but there are other sides in the competition (namely Man City) that have as big a claim to winning it as they do.
The Europa League is truly Manchester United’s and Solskjaer’s to lose. Anything but lifting the trophy in May in Gdansk is a failure at this point.