United need to be fifth-time lucky at the semis: Neil Humphreys
Solskjaer's men must end their semi-final curse; a trophy could help quell angry protests
Manchester United's Europa League semi-final will be sandwiched between demonstrations against the owners.
Last week, fans staged a protest at the training ground. Tomorrow morning (Singapore time), the Red Devils will host AS Roma. And on Sunday, an Old Trafford protest is planned ahead of the Liverpool game.
Two games, two demonstrations - welcome to the Manchester United crossroads. Proceed with caution.
|MANCHESTER UNITED||AS ROMA|
It's hard to recall the last time a fixture felt so weighty on so many levels.
At a surface level, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has good reason to be cheerful. Life is improving. Slowly and less flashy, perhaps, for those folks raised in the Sir Alex Ferguson era, but the club's fortunes are turning.
A fifth semi since the start of last year and Champions League football pretty much guaranteed, things are looking up.
But the previous four semi-finals were lost. Faith in the owners was arguably lost long before the European Super League (ESL) debacle, while the playing style has often dulled the senses rather than delighted.
It's all a bit safe and predictable, on the pitch and in the boardroom.
Solskjaer's 4-2-3-1 is tried and tested, relying on Bruno Fernandes to mind the gaps. When he doesn't, the Red Devils toil, as witnessed in the 0-0 draw against Leeds United.
The signings are mostly tried and tested, too. Edinson Cavani came from the Zlatan Ibrahimovic low-risk market of veteran thoroughbreds.
Apart from Fernandes, United's purchases mirrored the club in the Ed Woodward era: conservative and functional. Nevertheless, there are perceptible improvements.
So why are Old Trafford protests being planned?
The Glazers are the obvious answer, the easy scapegoats in the ESL fallout. But as Gary Lineker alluded to on social media, what are the protesters really hoping for here?
Do bad billionaires usually sell clubs to good billionaires? Are we operating in a corporate football industry or a fairy tale?
Apparently, Spotify chief executive Daniel Ek qualifies as a good billionaire, according to giddy Arsenal fans, because the Swedish entrepreneur is an actual Gunners supporter, too.
Singers and songwriters and anyone with a vague interest in intellectual property might hold a different view on Ek's alleged benevolence, not that hopeful Gunners particularly care at the moment.
The difficult reality to acknowledge is that billionaire owners of football clubs are only as good or bad as their last trophy. And maybe it's not a coincidence that the biggest ESL objections mostly came from the less successful clubs.
Manchester City were comparatively quiet. Funny that.
Trophies make terrific Band-Aids.
The Glazers will never silence the maddening crowds faster than victorious footballers completing a lap of honour with the Europa League trophy held aloft.
Solskjaer recently conceded that the Glazers had a "job on their hands" to repair their broken relationship with supporters. He probably didn't want to acknowledge that the job actually rests on him, at least in the short term.
Four semi-final defeats in a row probably shouldn't become five, considering the Glazers have backed Solskjaer in the transfer market (not as generously and decisively as United's rivals, perhaps, but the money has been forthcoming).
United's owners can be blamed for the club's overriding malaise in the last decade, but they can't be criticised for picking two holding midfielders against a Leeds United side with a porous defence.
The Red Devils' tactical conservatism remains, which has served them well on the road - they are undefeated in 24 English Premier League away games. But it becomes a concern when Fernandes feels the fatigue.
The playmaker has scored only once in United's last 10 games and a drought-breaker against AS Roma would certainly allay nerves.
Roma's spiralling form - just one win in their last five - may encourage Solskjaer to push Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and even Paul Pogba further forward than usual to destabilise a wobbly defence that may include former colleague Chris Smalling.
At this stage last season, shocking profligacy cost United against Sevilla. Solskjaer reacted far too late, not making a change until the 87th minute, when bodies were shattered and the tie was lost.
This time around, Solskjaer has Cavani, Rashford, Fernandes, Mason Greenwood and few excuses not to take the fight to a weary Roma.
United fans will thank him for it, but not half as much as his beleaguered employers.
Old Trafford protests are still expected on Sunday, but they'll be more subdued if the Red Devils already have one foot in the final.