LONDON: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could raise a smile as Manchester United swept third-tier strugglers Tranmere aside by 6-0 to secure entry to the fifth round of the FA Cup and earn a breathing space from the ferocious pressure being exerted by fans and media.
United, after a fragile opening 10 minutes, scored three times in the next four minutes and led 5-0 at halftime. It was perfect preparation for Wednesday’s League Cup semi-final challenge away to Manchester City which United begin 3-1 adrift.
New captain Harry Maguire scored his first goal since his £80m arrival and was followed by Jose Dalot, Jesse Lingard, Phil Jones and Anthony Martial. Jones’s goal was his first in six years. Teenager Mason Greenwood reached double figures in all competitions with a penalty early in the second half.
United will return to Premier duty next Saturday at home to Wolves determined to halt a run of two league defeats away to Liverpool and at home to Burnley. They are fifth in the table and only six points behind an increasingly vulnerable Chelsea.
Problems for United have not been limited to their form on the pitch. Their transfer market operation has been disappointing, reviving the jibe that executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward is better at signing sponsors than signing players.
United lost out in their pursuit of Erling Haaland even though he had a straightforward €20m release clause and Solskjaer was his former coach at Molde and a family friend. Haaland’s former RB Salzburg team-mate, Takumi Minamino, was another talent whom United tracked and was available for a cheap buyout fee (£7.25m) but preferred Liverpool.
Old hero Rio Ferdinand said: “Around £600m has been spent on this squad, and on what? There is nothing there that suggests to me that anyone is laying down the foundations for the future. You don’t see a pathway.”
Former midfielder Paul Ince is a member of the growing chorus who believe that United need a sporting director in the manner of Michael Edwards at Liverpool. More urgently, in the last hours of the transfer window, United need a striker to fill a gap left by a serious back injury to Marcus Rashford.
However the most likely arrival is Sporting Lisbon midfielder Bruno Fernandes, 25, for whom United have bid £46.4m. Sporting are holding out for £50.6m and hoping that the saga prompts an increased offer from someone else.
Solskjaer has claimed the responsibility for last summer’s clear-out of high earners such as Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Chris Smalling and Matteo Darmian. He has no regrets.
He said: “I have not wished we kept any of them. Some of those we let go were not right for the culture. That is my belief and it’s why we kept the players with the right attitude. They will run through a brick wall for the club. Not everyone did.
“I believe in this group of players. We’ve had a couple of rainy days but I’ve not seen any of my players trying to hide. The mood is still good at the training ground despite all the noise from outside. You get used to that at this club. It’s our job to shut out the outside noise and put things right.”
** Jurgen Klopp’s recourse to his Liverpool reserves backfired when the world and European champions and Premier League leaders were held 2-2 away to third tier Shrewsbury.
Liverpool led 2-0 early in the second half before conceding two goals to Jason Cummings (one a penalty). Even late call-ups of Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah could not save Liverpool adding a replay to their busy schedule.
** FA Cup holders Manchester City became the first major European team to reach 100 goals with a 4-0 victory over Fulham. Fulham were doomed after defender Tim Ream was sent off in the sixth minute for pulling down Gabriel Jesus.
Raheem Sterling and Jesus had missed their previous two penalties but Ilkay Gundogan avoided making the same hat-trick to propel City towards the fifth round.