Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Chris Smalling spoke to the world’s media ahead of tomorrow night’s Champions League game against Barcelona.
Eric Bailly, Ander Herrera, Nemanja Matic and Antonio Valencia didn’t train. Are they out of the game or is there a slight chance they could be back?
OGS: We still hope that maybe Nemanja can be ready and Ander is probably out. Eric and Antonio are definitely out.
Marcus Rashford started the session with some individual work. How’s his fitness? He had a problem with his ankle.
OGS: He needed an extra warm up and hopefully he won’t get a reaction. He joined parts of it at the end. Let’s see tomorrow. Hopefully he’ll be ready.
It feels like we’ve been saying every week this is your biggest game. But this probably is. How much of a step up is it? And how beneficial has the week been to prepare?
OGS: Every game is the biggest game. The next one is always the biggest but of course when you get a Barcelona – with the history and traditions of that club, with the quality of their team and individuals, we know we need to step up our game. We know we need to perform at our best level, which we didn’t against PSG in the home game. But I think the outcome of the second leg has given players belief, supporters belief that it is possible against a Barcelona team as well.
Chris, as a defender, is facing Lionel Messi something to be worried about or something to enjoy?
CS: It’s something to relish. This season I’ve been lucky enough to face Ronaldo, Mbappe, they’re all challenges that I definitely relish and the players at this club relish. I say bring it on.
We were surprised to see Alexis training today. How is he doing? Will he be able to play on Wednesday?
OGS: It was the first training session that he’s done with the team. He’s done lots of recovery work and is injury free. So now he’ll step up, train with the team and probably in the squad for West Ham on Saturday, and see if he plays. But he’s not going to be able to join in tomorrow.
Have you prepared a special plan to stop Messi?
OGS: What kind of plan can you have to stop one of the best players in the world? As Chris said, we’re looking forward to it and relishing the opportunity but this season we’ve played against Juventus and Ronaldo, PSG with Mbappe, we’ve had Chelsea and Hazard. I think the better an opponent… Suarez as well. Suarez, Coutinho and Messi will keep our defenders on their toes so let’s see how we manage tomorrow.
Paul Pogba has been in the news recently. France Football said next season he might go to Real Madrid. What do you think his situation is at the moment?
OGS: Paul is looking forward to tomorrow. He’s a Man United player, one of our big performers on a big stage. He knows that the game against PSG was not his greatest moment, so he’s only focussed on playing well tomorrow against Barcelona. I cannot see him not playing for Man United next season either.
A few years ago, when Pep Guardiola was manager of Bayern Munich, he said the talent of Messi is unstoppable. Do you agree?
OGS: You should ask Chris! He’s a fantastic player. He will go down in history as one of the best players ever. He will be difficult to stop but it’s never impossible. It’s not like it’s Messi against Manchester United. Suarez, Coutinho, Rakitic, Vidal, there are so many good players, we can’t just focus on one player. We know we have to play against 11 of them.
You’re in a period now where there’s lots of speculation around players and unsure contract situations. In what way does that affect you and the squad? Is it disturbing?
OGS: No at all because we’re all focussed on this game. Contract talks will go on with players later. Now everyone is focussed on the game, looking forward to it, knowing that we can create a special atmosphere here. Not long ago we played against PSG and disappointed ourselves. Then we played Liverpool and the atmosphere here was unbelievable. We’ll need the crowd in a game like this. It’s something special. I know the gaffer has spoken about it before and I’ve enjoyed those nights. Playing at Old Trafford in the knock-out stage, under the floodlights, hopefully a bit of rain, will make for a special evening.
You played against Barcelona here in 1998 and drew 3-3. Ferguson said it was a perfect game of football. Do you think it could be a similar story tomorrow?
OGS: I think there are two teams and they both carry threats. There are some fantastic attacking players on display but then again, their defenders are absolute quality. We drew 3-3 away from home as well so if we can get a 6-6 and a penalty shootout at the Nou Camp, I think everyone would be happy. Both teams have got it in them to score goals. We know we have to defend well against them to stand a chance and we will.
Chris, it’s been a while since United have had a tie like this. This is the quarter-final of the Champions League. What does it mean to you personally to be involved in this sort of match?
CS: You work so hard to get in to those Champions League places, like last season, and we’re working now to get third this season. These are the ties you look forward to. All the hard work in the group stages. As players, we’re itching to be on that field and show what we can do.
You’ve talked about the belief that the win over PSG has given the players in this competition. Bearing in mind where you are in the league at the moment, to get in the Champions League next season, could your best bet be winning it this season?
OGS: We have given ourselves a great chance to challenge for the top four positions with the results we’ve had since just before Christmas, and no one would have thought that. Now, winning the Champions League is possible, we can go on to win it. Whoever wins this will have some luck and will have to perform at their best. I wouldn’t saying winning the Champions League is easier than becoming top four. We’re not that far behind top four now.
Ferguson enjoyed some great tussles with Barcelona over the years. Have you tapped in to his knowledge at all ahead of tomorrow night?
OGS: All my experiences over the years, watching Barcelona, admiring the team and the quality they’ve got, you’ve always looked at what would you do against them. So we’re ready. I’ve discussed Barcelona with the gaffer since we got them in the draw but no details really.
You said ahead of the PSG tie that you wanted your team to hang in there, maybe until the last 10-15 minutes of the second leg. Is that the case with this as well?
OGS: The Champions League throws up so many strange results. Last year they were 4-1 up after the home game then lost 3-0 away to Roma. I think Barcelona, more than anyone, they lost 4-0 to PSG then won 6-1. It’s not going to be decided until we play 90 minutes in the Nou Camp. We have to make sure that we perform to our best and have a result to bring over to Barcelona.
After a great start, you’ve had three losses in four games. Has the mood in the group changed? And how is the confidence?
OGS: Confidence is high. The result and what we did against PSG and how we climbed the table, clawing back points, the players have given themselves and the supporters great confidence and belief we can do this. Of course you lose games, we lost a couple we should have won. Wolves in the FA Cup is the one we are disappointed with, but we won a couple that maybe we didn’t deserve to win. You cannot control the result. I can feel the tension, definitely. Excitement. Training today and yesterday, you can see there are players who want to play. The mood before the PSG home game was a bit different because we’d won so many games. Now we have learned from that PSG game, the players have talked about it, how we were dragged into making fouls, how European football is. We have got to be more patient with their tackles. Some of these players have tricks up their sleeve. We’ve learnt from that game.
You talk about patience in tackles. You’ve got five players in your squad who are a booking away from a suspension. How much does that play in your mind in terms of how to set the team up and approach the game?
OGS: It doesn’t matter if you get a yellow card. If you go for the ball and you don’t get it, and you get a yellow card for it, well, Roy Keane was the best example on how to react if you know you’re going to be out. What he did in the semi-final before the final. But we know we can’t give fouls away. How many goals has Messi scored from freekicks from just outside the box? We’ve got to be careful. Referees can’t buy little things. We were unlucky with the ref against PSG, when they should’ve had a man sent off, so we just hope for some luck.
You mentioned Paul earlier not having a great moment against PSG. Is this the kind of game and stage where you want him to inspire and lead like Messi does for Barca?
OGS: It’s not about one player, everyone has to perform, but at his best, Paul can run a game like this and that’s what you expect from him, that he really puts his stamp on this. I expect Chris to defend really well, that’s his job, but Paul’s job is to be the creator, to drive forward, so of course I expect him to perform tomorrow.
Last Saturday you watched Atletico against Barcelona. Do you think it would be good to stay in the game until the last few moments? Do you think it’s important to keep them as far away from your goal as possible with a view on the second leg?
OGS: Of course. I thought Atletico played really well before the sending off, but they’ve got moments of magic. At any point of the game you have to concentrate. So wherever we are, if we’re just defending outside our box or pressing further up the field, we have to concentrate for 90 minutes. If you stop your concentration against these players for a second you’ll get punished. It was good to go there and watch it live, it always is, and I know that we will give it a go.
You were with Gerard Pique at United. What memories do you have of him, how do you think he’s changed, and what influence do you think he has at Barca? Why do you think he didn’t manage to make the best of himself here at Manchester United?
OGS: Gerard, I used to play with him, actually I played here in a reserve final at Old Trafford. I scored, and Gerard scored, we won 2-0 against Tottenham. Kieran McKenna, our coach, played in that game. I don’t know if that tells you how young I am or how old Gerard is! It depends. You can translate that as you want. But he was a fantastic boy, he came to United as young boy, we had lots of belief in him, him and Giuseppe Rossi came together. He was maybe unlucky because he was here when arguably one of the best centre-back partnerships in the world with Rio and Nemanja Vidic played here so he didn’t get the chances that he probably deserved. So cultured, he can read the game, great in the air, very good boy to have in the dressing room, always smiling, joking, great lad. I know he’s not fond of needles, so maybe we should put a needle out for him! I’m just happy to see how he’s progressed in his career and how many trophies he’s won, and it will be nice to meet him again, it’s a few years ago since I’ve seen him. But hopefully we can make him feel old and not me young.
Chris, the manager has talked about belief. I don’t think anyone thought we’d be talking about a Champions League quarter-final when PSG were drawn out of the hat. You beat them. What did that do about making you think that you should be here, that you deserve to be here and you could spring another surprise?
CS: We showed the work we’ve done in the past few months that it can result in performances against the best teams in the world. We were all watching the draw before going out for training. When we saw it was Barcelona you could see the smiles on people’s faces because it’s another challenge put in front of us. We’ll go head on.