London: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will find himself in familiar territory in more ways than one when he takes charge of Manchester United for the first time at Cardiff City on Saturday.
So often previous United manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s go-to substitute when things were going wrong on the pitch — most notably his match-winning goal in the 1999 Uefa Champions League final — the Norwegian now faces another rescue act.
The 45-year-old was named as caretaker manager by the troubled Old Trafford club on Wednesday in the wake of Jose Mourinho’s sacking 24 hours earlier.
The final straw for United’s hierarchy was a 3-1 defeat by Premier League leaders Liverpool which left United 19 points off the top and 11 points away from fourth-placed Chelsea.
Former striker Solskjaer’s immediate focus will be three points at Cardiff, who he managed for eight months in 2014 but could not keep them in the top flight before being sacked at the start of the following campaign.
Solskjaer had a handy knack of scoring goals as an impact substitute during 11 years at Old Trafford, with many of his 126 strikes arriving after starting the match on the bench.
Having the same kind of influence while sat in a dugout alongside Mike Phelan, who was named as his assistant on Wednesday, will be the biggest test yet of Solskjaer’s lesser-known managerial capabilities.
While he managed to win successive Norwegian titles for Molde in 2011 and 2012, reviving a United side in disarray after their worst start for 28 years is a big step up.
On the plus side, after winning six Premier League titles and two FA Cups with United, as well as the Champions League, he knows exactly the kind of attacking football the fans crave but which was in short supply under Mourinho this season.
“Manchester United is in my heart and it’s brilliant to be coming back in this role,” Solskjaer, who made 366 appearances for the club and in 2008 became reserve-team manager, said in a statement after being named as interim coach.
“I’m really looking forward to working with the very talented squad we have, the staff and everyone at the club.” Sitting just above the relegation zone in 16th place Cardiff are unlikely to put out the welcome mat for their old boss, especially as he hardly distinguished himself while in charge.
With three successive home wins Neil Warnock’s side will also fancy their chances of ruining Solskjaer’s return.
In the likes of Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford, Solskjaer has more quality at his disposal than when he was at Cardiff.
Yet conjuring up a style of football that gets the best out of United’s attacking options while shoring up a leaky rearguard is what he will be judged on.
Much of the focus will be on United at the weekend but leaders Liverpool have a gilt-edged opportunity to open a four-point gap over Manchester City when they travel to Wolverhampton Wanderers on Friday.
Second-placed City are at home to Crystal Palace in 15th on Saturday, when fourth-placed Chelsea entertain 2016 champions Leicester City and fifth-placed Arsenal host struggling Burnley after Sunday’s shock 3-2 defeat at Southampton.
Third-placed Tottenham Hotspur, whose Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino has been tipped as a favourite to take over at United on a full-time basis next summer, will hope to keep within touching distance of Liverpool and City as they travel to Everton.