Man United managers are judged on trophies, and FA Cup run reflects well on Solskjaer
DERBY, England -- Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is chasing a return to the Champions League this season, but he is well aware of the barometer for success at Manchester United.
"Trophies are what we play for," he said pointedly ahead of the FA Cup fifth-round tie against Derby County. After a 3-0 win at Pride Park on Thursday, he is two games from leading his team out in a major final.
"We're the famous Man United and we're going to Wembley," sang the travelling fans. The arch is in sight.
Lifting the FA Cup saved Sir Alex Ferguson's job in 1990, and Solskjaer has refused to throw away any chance of silverware. A run to the Carabao Cup semifinals was only ended by Manchester City. Against Derby, 13th in the Championship, he did not take any chances, and despite making six changes, the team he fielded was still a strong one. It will be the same for the visit to Norwich in the next round.
"It's another away draw," Solskjaer said. "We're used to that now, seven in a row. We'll have to do it the hard way but we've got a chance now.
"I'm very pleased with the performance, to go through. You never know being favourites but it was professional. I've got good players and they're hitting form."
It has not escaped Solskjaer that even with a positive transfer window this summer, the chances of bridging the gap with City and Liverpool are slim. And while his revolution rumbles on, the domestic trophies will take on greater importance. No United manager can live off cups forever -- Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho both won something -- but they will do for starters. Winning the FA Cup this season would ease some of the pressure on Solskjaer's shoulders and give him the chance to compete for bigger prizes.
On a freezing night in Derby, the Norwegian did not have to look far for an example of what that first trophy can do for a team.
Wayne Rooney, now a Championship midfielder at the age of 34, won the League Cup in 2006 before going on to collect 12 major honours at Old Trafford including five Premier League titles and the Champions League. His arrival at United in 2004, joining Cristiano Ronaldo, sparked the development of Ferguson's third great United side, following on from the 1994 Double winners and the Treble team in 1999.
In 1992, Ferguson needed the transfer of Eric Cantona from Leeds United to turn a good cup team into a squad capable of winning a first league title for more than 20 years in 1993. Solskjaer may have already found his transformative signing in Bruno Fernandes. It could yet turn out to be Jadon Sancho or Jack Grealish.
He can be encouraged, though, that even during this transitional campaign his team have put a run together of nine games without defeat.
It might have been different had Derby taken advantage of their good start. Inside the first 20 minutes, Louie Sibley fizzed a shot past Sergio Romero's post before the Argentinian was forced into a good save to turn Rooney's free kick round the post. It took Luke Shaw's first goal since the opening day of last season -- a fortuitous volley that smashed into the ground and looped into the far corner -- and two goals for Odion Ighalo either side of half-time to finally quieten the home crowd.
It was a good night for Ighalo, who now has three goals in two starts for United and is looking more and more like a shrewd January signing. He has already matched Henrik Larsson's tally during his 2007 loan spell.
"He's doing what he says on the tin," Solskjaer said. "He's a different type of striker and gets chances every game. He could've had another couple. I'm delighted, very happy with him.
"He's experienced and he's scored goals his whole career, in and around the box. That type of striker is vital for the team."
When Ighalo made it 3-0 in the second half with a thumping finish, Solskjaer felt comfortable enough to turn his attention to Sunday's Manchester derby, withdrawing Fernandes, Fred and Shaw. A derby against City is important in its own right and even more so for United in the race for the top four. Solskjaer, though, is not about to give up the opportunity to get his hands on a first trophy as United manager.
"Today [the FA Cup] was the highest priority because we're not going to pick and choose games or competitions," he said afterwards. "We've got to go for everything. That is what it is to be here at Man United, you have got to go for a trophy."
He has given himself a chance.