One of the reasons Harry Maguire joined Manchester United from Leicester for a world-record £80million fee last summer was to boost his chances of playing Champions League football.
That irony will not be lost on anyone when he returns to The King Power for the first time on Sunday with a top-four finish at stake, for new club and old. A draw is good enough for United who sit third after an unbeaten run of 13 league games. But lose and they will be squeezed out by Leicester themselves and Chelsea, if Frank Lampard’s side gain a point at home to Wolves.
Poor Maguire, the most expensive defender in history, will therefore be celebrating at full-time at the expense of his former team-mates, or they will be doing the same to him.
If that sounds a large personal and professional burden for the 27-year-old, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is not expressing too much sympathy.
‘That’s football for you. Harry is a defender and you don’t want them to be emotional anyway,’ says the United boss in forthright mood.
‘Harry will be all right, the feelings he has for Leicester, he has to leave them aside for 90 minutes, unfortunately for them.’
Having seen United badly beaten in last Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea and dropping points at home to Southampton and West Ham, the pressure is suddenly on Solskjaer. David de Gea and Paul Pogba, among his most experienced players, are both making errors at the wrong time.
United have never gone consecutive seasons without Champions League football but that fate awaits them should they lose at Leicester and then fail to win the Europa League next month.
It could also have an impact on their strength in the transfer market. United would lose around £22million from sponsor Adidas if they fail to qualify for the Champions League under the terms of their deal, and world-class players generally prefer to sign for clubs in Europe’s premier competition.
As a player, Solskjaer was known as the baby-faced assassin. The youthful features are not quite the same at 47 but the assassin part remains relevant. He still carries a steely resolve and uses a great British colloquialism to describe what he wants from his players — from impressive youngsters Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams upwards.
‘Our temperament and mental preparation in how to approach the game is vital,’ he insists. ‘When you’re one of the young kids like Mason and Brandon who have come through this academy, you have no fear. They know what we want. We want them to express their talents and take risks. We want them to play with a pair of plums.’
United’s recent faltering means the league campaign goes down to the wire but Solskjaer, famed for rising to the occasion in Fergie time, seems to treat the situation as a great test.
‘If you want to be part of Man United, you should get used to playing the last game of the season as a win or bust,’ he says. ‘This is a game to experience and learn from. and hopefully get a result.
‘We are trying to build a team that can win trophies, put fear into teams and play without fear ourselves. The DNA of this club is to go and attack. This is a big game to see how far we have come mentally and how strong we are going into the last weekend.’
With the Europa League finishing in August and the next Premier League season starting in September, there will hardly be time to draw breath between the two campaigns.
It is the kind of non-stop adrenalin Solskjaer thrived on in the glory days. His captain in 2020 has never played in the Champions League before. A result today and Maguire can properly justify his £80m move.