Don’t be fooled by the baby face: Solskjaer can bring back derby fire at Manchester United

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Manchester United face Liverpool this weekend as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side look to dent the title hopes of their bitter rivals.

Of course, a victory in the derby would hand an advantage to geographical foes Manchester City but, for United, it has often been about “knocking them off their perch”, instead of the “noisy neighbours”.

It would hurt, of course, if City won the title, but United have seen that happen before. Liverpool, for many fans, cannot be allowed to taste that glory again.

It is lucky, then, that the club have a manager who understands exactly that. Solskjaer is remarked upon as the baby-faced assassin and he has been astute in the dugout too.

United have lost just once this season under the Norwegian, in a Champions League game against PSG that was 0-0 when both Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard sustained injuries that could rule them out of the clash with Klopp’s side.

A 2-0 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup followed their 2-0 European defeat and saw a number of headlines written about the crisis engulfing the Blues and Maurizio Sarri. But Solskjaer effectively nullified the Chelsea attack with his tactical decisions.

Against Liverpool, though, it matters more. This is a rivalry that is as storied as it is passionate. It is about time United brought back some derby fire.

This used to be a game that would attract thunderous challenges and some genuine needle. Fans love to see the sort of passion that they show in the stands and Solskjaer often exemplified that in his playing days.

He may have scored the winning goal in the 1999 Champions League final but there is an under-rated moment that perhaps solidified Solskjaer’s status as a cult hero a year before that glorious night in Barcelona.

In a 1998 clash with Newcastle United, with the scores poised at 1-1, Rob Lee surged towards the penalty box, ready to hand Arsenal the advantage in the title race. Solskjaer, in a show of genuine desire so rarely seen, sprinted back and took matters into his own hands.

He did not hesitate to swipe Lee’s legs from under him, committing a professional foul and preserving the point that United so desperately needed. He was sent off and the Old Trafford crowd gave him a standing ovation. David Beckham ran over to pat him on the head and it appeared as though Solskjaer mouthed “I had to”.

The fans knew what they had seen – this was a player willing to do absolutely anything for his team, for his team-mates, for its supporters.

He needs no reminding of what playing Liverpool means.

Solskjaer has been dealt a difficult hand, too. If Martial and Lingard are out of the game, Liverpool will instantly be installed as favourites. They have a better team. Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane pose a terrifying threat, while Alisson is perhaps the only goalkeeper who can rival David De Gea’s claim to being the best in the Premier League.

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However, this game is at Old Trafford and that famous stadium can be a cauldron when genuine enemies step into the breach.

United need to make this game about them, they need to play with pace, with ferocity, with controlled aggression. They need, in short, to get back to those brutal derbies of old.

There have not been more than two yellow cards in a game between the pair since 2016, when there were four. Steven Gerrard was the last player sent off in the game, in March 2015. Of course, that red card came about as the result of a stamp just minutes after he came on as a substitute.

This is not to say that United need to scythe down Liverpool players every chance they get. But they need to rediscover the passion that Solskjaer so regularly embodied as a player.

Earlier this season, Liverpool won 3-1 at Anfield. United had six shots. The Reds had 36. United, in short, were a picture of passivity. Solskjaer is never going to settle for that.

Nor should he. Beat the Reds, put a dent in their title hopes, and the calls for the former Cardiff City boss to be given the club’s managerial post on a permanent basis will only grow louder.

At the end of the day, there is simply no better man for the job, both in the short-term against Liverpool and in the long-term for the club’s future.