After catapulting themselves to joint top of the Premier League in recent weeks, Manchester United now have the chance to reach their first cup final in three seasons. They meet Manchester City at Old Trafford on Wednesday evening in a single knockout match for a place in this season’s Carabao Cup final.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the United manager, spoke ahead of the game and previewed the match while responding to questions posed in relation to United’s recent run of semi final exits.
Fourth time lucky?
This game represents United’s fourth semi final appearance in less than 12 months. They have lost the previous three. If reaching the latter stages of the Carabao Cup, Europa League and FA Cup last season showed United’s ability to go far in each of their competitions by using their squad depth, by not progressing to any of the finals highlighted that Solskjaer’s team lacked a clinical edge at the crucial moments.
“When you get to a semi final you’ve done a lot of good work to get there and you play better and better opponents,” the United manager said. "We’ve improved immensely in a year since the last semi final we were in [against Sevilla in the Europa League last August]. For me it’s a step closer to the final.
“It’s easy to ask what we have learnt [from the three successive semi final defeats] but it’s about fine margins in those semi finals as well. When you win games you don’t think whether it’s a semi final, a normal game, a league game, or a quarter final - you just want to win it.”
A re-run of last season’s semi final
United met City at this stage of the competition last season - albeit that was played over two legs. City prevailed although United did win the second leg at the Etihad but that wasn’t enough to overturn Pep Guardiola’s side’s advantage.
Both teams go into this game having surged up the Premier League table: United have not lost a domestic match since November 1, while City reignited their title hopes at the weekend with a comprehensive win over Chelsea.
“You have two teams who want to get to the final,” Solskjaer added. “The last game showed two teams with respect for each other. They were not as possession based against Chelsea [on Sunday] and were more counter-attacking. We’ve got to be aware of that as well as their possession game.”
Progress made against City
This game is the sixth meeting of the two sides in two years. United have won half of those matches while the last meeting, three weeks ago, ended in a drab goalless stalemate which was far from the normal enjoyable spectacle that a Manchester derby usually delivers.
“I’ve seen progress, sometimes the results don’t show the whole picture of the game,” Solskjaer said of his side’s recent form against their city rivals. “Away in the league we could have scored four or five in a 10 or 15 minute period, a few of the counter-attacks were out of this world but we had less control of the ball.
“The last game was more of a 50-50; it was a cagey game from both teams but I felt that was a progression having stayed in the game more. You never know what kind of system they will come up with but you have got to defend really well against Man City.
“It’s hard to keep the ball in their half, you have got to be brave, compact and trust your players to play out of their press. There have been some fascinating games and I feel we’ve got closer and closer.”
A United trophy is a requirement for Solskjaer
The winner of this semi final will play either Tottenham Hotspur or Brentford in the final in April. It is a chance of win a trophy, or in City’s case the opportunity to retain it for a third successive season. Still, Solskjaer hopes that his side can this time make it over the line and claim their first piece of Silverware under the Norwegian.
“The next game is always important, the semi final is a chance to get to a final and for this team it would be a very big step to get their hands on a trophy. Of course, you play football to win trophies - it gives you hunger to win more. The squad is focused and ready to give it a go and prepare well for this game. We are confident, in good form - there are no excuses.”
United will be without Edinson Cavani who is serving a three-game ban issued by the FA following the Uruguayan striker posting a message on social media that could be interpreted as racist.
“We’re disappointed not having Edinson involved. He’s probably the only one [not available] and Phil Jones who’s been out for a long time, they are the only two not available for selection, which is a good situation to be in.”