By Andrew Warshaw
December 9 – Manchester United became the first high-profile victims of Champions League elimination on Tuesday as they failed to make the knockout stages, heaping even more pressure under-fire manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
United’s 3-2 defeat at RB Leipzig means they miss out on the hugely lucrative last 16 and instead fall into the Europa League, paying the price for losing their final two group games and heightening speculation that Solskjaer, who has been under scrutiny for weeks because of his team’s indifferent form, will be the first English Premier League manager to be axed this season.
United rallied on Tuesday after falling 3-0 behind but couldn’t quite secure the draw they needed to progress and Solskjaer now leads the Premier League sack race with the odds of him being replaced shortened to 2/1, with former Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino favourite to take over at Old Trafford.
The Red Devils, packed with expensive international players on huge salaries, currently sit sixth in the Premier League and face another daunting task this Saturday when they host rivals and title challengers Manchester City.
“We didn’t perform as a team and that’s always the manager’s responsibility – to get everyone ready,” said a crestfallen Solskjaer, the first manager of a British club to lose six of his first 10 matches in the Champions League despite starting this season’s competition with an away win at Paris Saint-Germain and demolishing Leipzig 5-0 in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford.
“We never got going. We didn’t turn up until they scored the second goal. That is the manager’s responsibility.”
The brutal truth is that no-one has been able to consistently rekindle the club’s glory days since Sir Alex Ferguson departed in 2013, either domestically or in the Champions League where United have since failed to make it past the quarterfinals. The financial ramifications are as stark as the footballing ones. Had United reached the last eight this season, they would have earned themselves an additional €21 million in prize money alone.
Solkjaer’s admirers will point to the fact that United are only five points behind leaders Premier League Tottenham with a game in hand.
But crashing out of the Champions League in the group stage was far more hurtful than the occasional league defeat. United had their group under control and the consequences could prove hugely damaging, especially with Paul Pogba, signed in 2016 for a then-record $120 million transfer fee, reportedly seeking a move away in January.
As for Leipzig, coach Julian Nagelsmann was keen to stress that advancing to the last 16 proved their run to last year’s semi-finals was no fluke.
“The win is very important for the boys so that they realise that we were not a one-hit wonder last year (season),” Nagelsmann said. “In the league we have not dropped too may points and the players have matured and are hungry. The boys believe in themselves and they just keep marching.”
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