Ole Gunnar Solskjaer claimed the Europa League has been the perfect stepping stone for Manchester United’s re-emergence as a major force.
United take on Copenhagen tonight for a place in the semi-finals, with boss Solskjaer admitting Europe’s second tier competition has allowed him to develop his squad.
Solskjaer has given debuts to youngsters including defender Brandon Williams and striker Mason Greenwood, both of whom have forced their way to the status of automatic picks.
Had United been in the Champions League this season, Solskjaer said he would not have been able to give Williams and Greenwood as much playing time as this season.
That is why Solskjaer believes the Europa League has been the ideal stage for United, with the Reds already back in the Champions League next season after finishing third in the Premier League.
“We went into this season knowing the Europa League was a great chance for us to get a trophy, to go far in a tournament and groom a few youngsters,” said Solskjaer. “So it was perfect for us.
“If we were in the Champions League this season, I wouldn’t have had a chance to play the likes of Brandon as much as we have, Mason, and some of the young kids that have started out on fantastic careers.
“The Europa League has been about that as well, keeping the squad together, a group working together, and giving people chances.
“Brandon is next to me now and he’s going to play a quarter-final in the Europa League, which is a great achievement.
“We have developed through the season, with a squad that’s been working together.
“There were a few changes in the January window that made us stronger, but the teamwork we’ve done, with more and more principles in the group, is more natural and we’ve found good form.
“We’ve got good players and also players back from injury.”
After giving his B-team a run-out in the 2-1 second leg last 16 win over LASK last week, after a commanding 5-0 first-leg win, Solskajer’s established stars will return tonight.
That means the likes of Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Greenwood all returning for a game United expect and are expected to win, to set up a semi-final with Wolves or Sevilla on Sunday.
Solskjaer reserved special praise for Martial, who has produced a career-best haul of 23 goals this season and developed into a formidable striker with a physical presence as well as a deft touch in front of the target.
“Anthony has made huge strides this season in many aspects of his game,” said Solskjaer.
“I like him scoring, being in between the posts, scoring the simple goals, because we know he can score the worldies, like he has a few times.
“He’s in the gym a lot, working on his strength and fitness with the staff and physically he’s at the best level in his career.
“I’m just looking forward to seeing him improve even more. There’s more to come from Anthony, definitely.”
Pogba is another player who looks happier at United, after a season blighted by injury, with the previously unsettled midfielder now set to sign a contract extension this summer.
“We’re delighted he’s back playing, he’s fit and he’s enjoying his football,” said Solskajer.
“He’s got to make up for lost time and he’s doing that. He’s training extra, he’s always a great personality around the place and hopefully we can see him lift this trophy as he has done before.
“He’s a great professional, a fantastic boy and I’m delighted we’ve got him in the team.”
The immediate focus for United is winning tonight and staying on course for a first trophy under Solskjaer, which would be another big step in their progress – even if there will be no fans to witness it.
“We’re in a strange period and strange times at the moment,” said Solskajer. “It’s unprecedented, but we’ve got to make the most of it.
“If we’re able to go through to the semi-final and final it would mean a lot to the club, players, supporters and staff. We just have to make the best out of a difficult situation.”
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