MANCHESTER: Manchester United cross paths with Villarreal once more tonight in desperate need of a win to avoid another European embarrassment and ease the rising pressure on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Yellow Submarine emerged 11-10 winners from a marathon penalty shootout when the sides last met in the Europa League final in May to win their first ever major trophy.
Defeat extended Solskjaer's wait for silverware as United boss since taking charge in December 2019, but goalkeeper David de Gea was the fall guy in Gdansk. The Spanish international's failure to stop a single Villarreal penalty was compounded when he was the only player from the 22 on both sides to fail to score from the spot. At the time it looked like De Gea's days as United number one may be up, despite being one of the highest paid players in the Premier League.
Solskjaer had already handed the reigns to Dean Henderson towards the of the Premier League season and his decision not to at least bring on the England goalkeeper, who boasts a far better penalty record, became another stick with which to beat his management of the final. But Henderson's health suffered badly after testing positive for coronavirus during pre-season, giving De Gea the gloves for the start of the campaign. Despite a mixed bag of results, United would be even worse off if it wasn't for the 30-year-old's return to form.
De Gea produced a series of miraculous saves as the Red Devils escaped with a 1-0 win at Wolves. And he ended his hoodoo of failing to save 41 penalties on the trot for club and country when he denied Mark Noble in stoppage time of a dramatic 2-1 victory at West Ham. "I try to train very well, to show that I'm ready and then go to the game with the same spirit, experience and quality for the team," said De Gea. "I feel well, I fell strong, I feel confident. I'm really happy and that's the most important thing."
However, those wins at Molineux and the London Stadium papered over cracks that are beginning to show in United's unbalanced squad. Solskjaer's men have lost three of their past four games despite adding Cristiano Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho to a squad already rich in attacking talent. The English giants only dropped into the Europa League last season after crashing out at the group stages. And anything less than revenge against Villarreal would leave them in severe danger of doing the same again after losing their group opener to Swiss side Young Boys.
The excitement generated by Ronaldo's return to Old Trafford has only intensified the scrutiny on Solskjaer to deliver in his third full season in charge. But his Champions League record of seven defeats in 11 games does not make for pretty reading. Solskjaer is yet to find the right midfield balance to carry the defensive burden for his array of attacking talent. And he may be even more reliant on De Gea for the visit of Unai Emery's men with defenders Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw major doubts due to injury. - AFP