SINGAPORE - Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has made no secret of his goal to return Manchester United to their glory days by playing a brand of football synonymous with the club’s successful teams: attacking with width, speed and a fearless spirit.
To do this, the United manager knows fitness is key – that is why he has put his charges under an intense fitness regimen to whip them into shape since the team began pre-season on July 1.
Ahead of the Red Devils’ exhibition match against Italian Serie A side Inter Milan in the International Champions Cup at the National Stadium on Saturday (July 20), Solskjaer stressed how crucial fitness would be to his side’s hopes of hitting the ground running in the new season. United finished sixth last term.
“The start of the season is important, and that’s why we’ve worked the (players) hard,” the Norwegian said at the club’s official press conference at the National Stadium on Friday.
“I don’t think many of these players have had a pre-season like this in the last two or three years because of (international competitions).
“In the first eight to 10 games, you don’t win any (trophies), but you definitely can lose the chance to win things, so to us, a good start in the first two months is vital.”
Indeed, if one word could sum up his team’s hour-long training session yesterday evening, it would be “intense”.
The players all wore steely, focused looks and hardly reacted to a crowd of more than 100 supporters who had turned up to watch their idols.
Goalkeeper David de Gea and midfielder Paul Pogba, linked with moves away from the club, meant business as they put in a shift in the humid atmosphere under the closed roof of the National Stadium.
Veteran midfielder Juan Mata proved the biggest hit with the fans in the end, as he patiently worked his way down a line of frenzied United fans and autographed every shirt, scarf or memorabilia thrust in his face.
United kick off their Premier League season against fellow title rivals Chelsea on Aug 11, and Solskjaer will certainly hope his players carry their focus from pre-season into competitive games.
The 46-year-old, who scored 126 goals in 366 games for United, added that he expects a tighter Premier League title race than last season.
In what was largely a two-horse race, Manchester City lifted the title with 98 points, just one ahead of Liverpool, whose tally was a record for a second-placed team.
“The Premier League is a very competitive league and what those two teams did last season was exceptional,” said Solskjaer, who succeeded Jose Mourinho in December and ended the season 32 points adrift of City, missing out on Champions League football next season.
“To get 97 and 98 points, I don’t think that’ll happen again. There are six teams that want the Champions League places, but our aim is to focus on ourselves. We have to do better, improve... and I’m sure we’ll get closer to the top.”
He also confirmed that de Gea and defender Luke Shaw are in line to feature against Inter, having not featured so far in pre-season games in Australia last week.
However, striker Romelu Lukaku – strongly linked to a move to Inter coincidentally – is still “not fit” to play, according to the manager.
Solskjaer added he had no updates on outgoing transfers and, when asked about potential signings, he also remained coy.
“Well, as I’ve said, we’re working on one or two cases, but my aim and objective when I’m here is to get ready for games and training sessions,” he said.
He also hailed the reception the team received at The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore where United are based.
Over 200 fans mobbed the team bus and cheered as the team arrived on Thursday night and Solskjaer said he hoped the team can deliver a good performance tonight.
“It was a fantastic reception,” said Solskjaer. “I was here in 2001 (as a player in an exhibition friendly) so I expected the fans to be outside the hotel and in the lobby. Always, when we travel to meet the fans, it’s fantastic, so hopefully we can play a decent game tomorrow for them, too.”