London- Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first test as Manchester United’s caretaker manager will come in familiar surroundings as the Norwegian returns to Cardiff City on Saturday, hoping to fare better than he did during an ill-fated nine-month spell with the Welsh side in 2014.
Solskjaer’s appointment was described as designed to put a smile back on the face of everyone at the club after the confrontational end to Jose Mourinho’s two-and-a-half years in charge.
The new man’s first act on his return to the club’s Carrington training ground was reportedly to gift a bar of Norwegian chocolate to the club’s long-serving receptionist -- a gesture of the human qualities United know they are getting. “The smiling assassin sums him up,” former United midfielder Darren Fletcher, who played with Solskjaer, told the BBC. “He’s a lovely fella but Ole will let people know if he’s not happy with them.”
The best way for him to lighten to mood quickly will be with results on the pitch.
A 3-1 defeat by Liverpool last weekend left United 19 points off the league leaders and even 11 points adrift of the top four, but Solskjaer can look forward to a relatively forgiving fixture list over the festive period.
After visiting the Cardiff City Stadium, the Red Devils host Huddersfield and Bournemouth before travelling to Newcastle on January 2.
Solskjaer’s presence rekindles memories of United’s golden age, but also serves as a stark reminder of how far the club have fallen since the retirement of Alex Ferguson in 2013.
In 11 seasons under Ferguson as a predatory striker, Solskjaer scored 126 goals, including the one that famously won the Champions League final in 1999 as part of a treble of major trophies.
Yet, doubts remain over whether Solskjaer’s appointment as caretaker boss until the end of the season is based too strongly on sentimentality than someone with the right mix of motivational and tactical prowess to get United not only competing again in the Premier League, but who can push Paris Saint-Germain in a challenging Champions League last-16 tie.
His time at Cardiff that resulted in just three wins in 18 Premier League games, relegation and being sacked early the next season after a poor start in the Championship does not offer much cause for optimism.
But two spells in charge of Molde in his homeland have been far more successful and Solskjaer also started his managerial career working as United’s reserve coach, where he oversaw Paul Pogba among others.
The French World Cup winner’s frosty relationship with Mourinho was a major factor in the Portuguese’s failure to build on winning the League Cup and Europa League in his first season at Old Trafford. Pogba has started United’s last three Premier League games on the bench, but is expected to return to the starting XI after Solskjaer claimed earlier this year he would “build the team around him”.
Solskjaer must also find the right defence to offer David de Gea more protection. The Spaniard has conceded more goals in the Premier League this season (29) in 17 games than the whole of the previous campaign as Mourinho persistently changed his backline to no effect.
In areas, Mourinho’s dismissal could also provide a fresh start for Juan Mata and Anthony Martial.