Tuesday night finally brought good news during a difficult month for Manchester United. Bruno Fernandes is expected to complete an initial €55m move to Old Trafford imminently. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer should, all being well, add to his depleted squad this January. He may even have the creative, goal-scoring midfielder his system craves. But before any confirmation of Fernandes’s arrival, the new-found feel-good factor will be tested by a Carabao Cup semi-final Manchester derby.
Memories of the first leg would be an immediate buzz kill for any United fan. As one-sided as the defeat at Anfield might have been, and as dismal as Burnley’s first win at Old Trafford since 1962 was, United have rarely looked as directionless under Solskjaer as in the half hour which followed Bernardo Silva’s opening goal for Manchester City in the first leg three weeks ago. A gulf opened up between this city’s two clubs a long time before, but that night it was chasmic.
Solskjaer came close to admitting as much on Tuesday morning, when he recalled how he thought the tie was practically finished by half time. “The second part of that first half they outplayed us for a while,” he said. He was yet more honest and critical of the performance in the immediate aftermath of the 3-1 defeat, claiming: “From their goal until half time is the worst we’ve played.”
Marcus Rashford’s consolation is the only reason why United have any shred of hope for Wednesday’s second leg, but equally, the absence of their top scorer with a double stress fracture of the back only makes their task all the more difficult. Rashford was also instrumental in United’s heist of three Premier League points at the Etihad last month – winning and scoring a penalty in an all-round display of brilliant counter-attacking.
United won 2-1 that day but this time, even a 2-0 scoreline may not be enough. The away goals rule was scrapped from Carabao Cup semi-finals last year, meaning that they must overturn City’s 3-1 advantage in full in order to progress. If the scores are level at the end of 90 minutes, a penalty shoot-out will decide who plays Aston Villa at Wembley in March. All things considered, United’s chances are slim.
Solskjaer knows United need to be faultless if they are to reach the final. “It has to be a perfect performance to win with two goals against such a good team away from home,” he said on Tuesday, before harking back to the archetype Solskjaer performance. “We’ve got to go into the memory bank and think ‘PSG’. The PSG game is, for me, a very good example of how you can make a two goal deficit work in your favour.”
But this will not be the first time that Solskjaer has attempted to recreate that night in Paris. United’s approach to meetings with other elite clubs has been drawn from the same blueprint, with a varied degree of success. The problem with settling for less possession and playing on the counter-attack is that you also give up a significant amount of control. You are no longer the master of your own destiny. Victory, if achieved, feels something akin to a miracle.
Only the win at the Etihad in December rivals Paris in the stakes of Solskjaer’s best victories. In both games, United recorded less than 30 per cent possession and had half as many shots as their opponents. Perhaps this will be a famous third instalment, but can United seriously expect to see just as little of the ball, to allow their opponents just as many shots at goal, and yet still win by three to progress after 90 minutes?
Even if Rashford was present and available, that would seem improbable. Without him, a meek exit is more likely. And if this 181st Manchester derby ends in the humiliation which some predict, then the optimism of the last 24 hours will quickly snap back into cold reality. The hype around Fernandes has been so great for so long, he has become viewed as a transformative figure, with the ability to turn United’s fortunes around immediately. This game could be a sudden reminder that United's problems run far deeper than that.