Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has several selection headaches ahead of the Europa League final against Villarreal in Gdansk as he both sweats on the fitness of Harry Maguire and tries to find a way to include all his attacking stars while still retaining a balanced side.
Solskjaer opted to rest his usual starters for United’s 2-1 win in the last Premier League game of the season against Wolves, but Maguire has been missing since limping out of the victory over Aston Villa in April as a result of an ankle injury.
United haven’t kept a clean sheet since, conceding eight times in their final four league games, with the captain now a major doubt to be ready in time to face Villarreal.
After the Wolves game, Solskjaer admitted that he will ‘wait for Wednesday’, the day of the final itself, to make a decision on Maguire’s involvement on e way or the other. A lot will depend on whether he is ready to train properly by Tuesday, but the United boss has said it is not hopeful.
Home-grown talent Axel Tuanzebe, who famously pocketed Kylian Mbappe when United beat Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League back in October, has played three of the four games in Maguire’s absence. Eric Bailly has also been involved as both vie for a starting place.
While no manager wants to be sweating on the fitness of his captain and most important defender, Solskjaer has the opposite issue further up the pitch. If anything, he has too many options in midfield and may have to leave at one big name on the bench or risk unbalancing his team.
Usually favouring two defensive midfielders, Solskjaer must figure out if it is possible to fit Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford, both potential match winners, into the same starting XI.
With Bruno Fernandes to start just ahead of expected duo Scott McTominay and Fred in a three-man midfield, there may be no place centrally for Pogba. He has often been deployed on the left this season, but Rashford in turn is much more effective on the left than he is on the right, while there could also be a knock-on effect on Mason Greenwood or Edinson Cavani if Solskjaer tinkers.
“It’s a big call for Ole,” ex-United midfielder Owen Hargreaves told 90min ahead of the game.
“Does Pogba play off the left where he has played? But that’s Marcus’ position really. If Marcus doesn’t play off the left, he plays on the right, but then that means Greenwood doesn’t play and obviously Cavani is going to start.
“Bruno is guaranteed [to start] and Ole loves that double pivot with two defensive midfield players. You’ll know when he picks the team what he’s thinking of. That double pivot is a bit about control and protection and we’ve seen United without Harry Maguire have been a bit more vulnerable lately. If Harry is not playing you can see Ole going with the two defensive midfielders and then Pogba off the left and Marcus off the right. Then you’ve got Greenwood to come off the bench.”
There had been slight doubts about McTominay and Fred in the wake of unspecified ‘knocks’ suffered in the last home game of the season against Fulham. Solskjaer now expects both to be fit enough to start and Hargreaves doubts a knock would keep any player out of a major final.
“A knock is a knock, you can play through a knock,” he says. “If you’re injured you can’t play through an injury. If you’ve got a knock, trust me, you’re playing through it in a European final.”
Maguire, as already mentioned, is a much more serious problem for United.
“Harry Maguire is a big miss. If can’t play that is a big blow because his consistency since he’s been at United has been fabulous, his appearance rate has been fabulous,” Hargreaves explains.
“We’ve seen in the last few games when he hasn’t played, they’ve looked pretty different. If he can’t play it is a big call who steps in and fills his boots.”
Solskjaer must also make a decision on whether he starts David de Gea or Dean Henderson in goal.
BT Sport will show Manchester United vs Villarreal in the UEFA Europa League final live from 6:30pm on Wednesday 26th May. Whoever you watch the final with, watch it together with BT. For more info go to btsport.com/final