MANCHESTER – The Ole Gunnar Solskjaer feelgood factor at Manchester United has been replaced by a fear factor as the club face the real prospect of missing out on next season's Champions League.
United's popular new boss has little margin for error after a damaging run that has seen his side lose four of their past five league and cup games, sliding back down to sixth in the Premier League in the process.
Solskjaer's side, who host West Ham on Saturday, held their own in the midweek home Champions League quarter-final first leg against Barcelona but still recorded a 1-0 defeat to take into next week's return fixture in Spain.
But the task facing Solskjaer domestically is every bit as challenging as the prospect of taking on Messi and company in the Camp Nou.
Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal are all vying with United for the two places left on offer in the top four behind title-chasing Liverpool and Manchester City.
And it appears Solskjaer's remarkable efforts to turn around United's season may be floundering at precisely the wrong moment.
Only two of United's four recent losses have come in the league, at Arsenal and Wolves, but their only victory in their past five has come in a less-than-convincing 2-1 home win over Watford which Solskjaer, at the time, described as the worst performance of his reign.
West Ham, who are also struggling for form, would appear to offer the Norwegian the chance to return to winning ways at Old Trafford but Solskjaer himself has made clear his side cannot afford untimely slip-ups.
Points up for grabs
Before last week's league defeat at Wolves, Solskjaer broke from type and issued a points target for his team - 15 from their then remaining seven fixtures.
Even after United let a lead slip to lose 2-1 to their hosts, Solskjaer remained upbeat.
“I said we need 15 points from our last seven games and now we need 15 from our last six,” he said. “It's difficult but then again, we're a very good team and it's going to be difficult for anybody who plays against us.”
United are braced for a tough run of fixtures as the season enters its final few weeks.
After travelling to Barcelona they face a difficult game at a resurgent Everton followed by the Manchester derby at home against Pep Guardiola's quadruple-chasing City.
Chelsea then visit Old Trafford for a game that could have a major bearing on the make-up of the top four.
Solskjaer's team selection for the West Ham game will be made with half an eye on the Barca return and, having been in training all week, it is not impossible that injury-plagued striker Alexis Sanchez could be in contention.
United will also run checks on midfielders Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera, who missed the Barcelona first leg but whose absences were mitigated by the superb performance of young Scottish international Scott McTominay. Solskjaer may well elect to rest McTominay ahead of the trip to Spain.
Agence France-Presse (AFP)