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Man United rebuild far from completion

Written by 
Published in Soccer
Thursday, 20 February 2020 13:24

BRUGES, Belgium -- It's been four and a half years since Manchester United were last in Bruges, and it is evidence of the size of the job facing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that in that time not much has changed. The manager is different and so are most of the players, but the question being asked is the same now as it was then: When will United be back on top?

There were very few answers during a drab 1-1 draw with Club Brugge in the first leg of their Europa League round-of-32 tie in howling wind and rain on Thursday. Anthony Martial's away goal will mean United are favourites to go through, but they will have to be better at Old Trafford next week. Club Brugge, unbeaten for more than two months, are no respecter of reputations and have already drawn 2-2 with Real Madrid in the Bernabeu.

"It was a difficult game against a well-organised team in difficult conditions," said Solskjaer. "I don't think it was one of the best games, a bit sloppy, and conditions with the pitch and the ball made it hard."

In August 2015, United arrived in Bruges with an optimism that had been missing since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement. Unbeaten in the early exchanges of the Premier League, a Wayne Rooney hat trick in a 4-0 win booked a return to the Champions League. Louis van Gaal's team won 10 of their first 14 games in all competitions, including home wins over Tottenham and Liverpool and a 3-0 thrashing of Everton at Goodison Park.

By November they were genuine title contenders, but it unravelled quickly, and despite ending the season with the FA Cup -- the first trophy of the post-Ferguson era -- Van Gaal was dismissed at the end of the campaign.

In the past five years, United have sacked Van Gaal and his replacement, Jose Mourinho. More than £590 million have been spent on players, but there has been very little in the way of genuine progress. They are still trying to battle their way back into the Champions League, and the 21st title appears as far away as ever.

Fans packed into the bars around The Markt, Bruges' central square, are still talking about rebuilds and resurgence. It is Solskjaer's job to ensure the conversations are not the same in another five years' time. He will not be in the job if they are.

United have been treading water for too long and a swift return to the Champions League is a must, but for half an hour here they looked nothing like a team worthy of Europe's top club competition.

Nemanja Matic was forced to clear from underneath his own crossbar inside two minutes. Club Brugge, nine points clear at the top of the Belgian league, took the lead thanks to some diabolical defending when Simon Mignolet's long punt forward was lifted over the advancing Sergio Romero by Emmanuel Dennis. Mats Rits should have scored again moments later before Romero was forced into a save at his near post.

It took an awful mix-up between Maxim De Cuyper and Brandon Mechele that allowed Martial to race through to equalise and jolt United into life. Brandon Williams blazed over the bar. Martial hit the post.

Afterwards, Solskjaer called both goals "strange."

With Sergio Romero, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira and Diogo Dalot all picked from the start, this was Solskjaer's second team as he looks to nurse his squad through the second half of the season. He is not in a position yet where he can prioritise the Premier League or the Europa League in the hunt for Champions League football and, for now, he needs to stay in the race in both competitions. Had Mason Greenwood not been struck down with illness, Martial would not have started here, and it was telling the Frenchman was substituted with more than 20 minutes to go and the game still in the balance.

This is the business end of a European competition, but Watford at Old Trafford on Sunday is another big game in the battle for the top four. It would be typical of United's season if they were to follow up an impressive 2-0 win at Chelsea by failing to beat the team second bottom in the table. Bruno Fernandes, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Fred should all return to make sure that does not happen. After Watford comes the return leg against Club Brugge, and Solskjaer will again have to shuffle his pack.

"We needed to make everyone part of the squad, we've got so many games now," said the Norwegian. "We've got to think about the bigger picture. We got an away goal, got a draw, we go home next week and hopefully we can finish the job."

Five years on from the last visit to Bruges, the United rebuild is still a long way from being completed.

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