Solskjaer appeals for patience

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has cautioned against Manchester United fans’ unrealistic expectations of him following the popular striker’s return to action at Birmingham last night.

Solskjaer ended an 18-month exile from senior duty when he replaced Cristiano Ronaldo seven minutes from the end of United’s 2-2 draw at St Andrews.

Although the Norwegian, who has had two lots of knee surgery since making his last first-team appearance in the 2004 FA Cup final defeat by Millwall, was unable to seal his emotional return with a goal which would have kept the Red Devils flagging title hopes alive, his introduction was greeted with rapturous applause from the visiting fans.

Solskjaer has an indelible place in supporters’ hearts, not just because of his injury-time winner in the 1999 Champions League final, but also due to his wholehearted devotion to the Old Trafford cause.

The 32-year-old will forever be grateful for the backing but he has warned it will take him time to reach the level of performance United have become used to down the years.

“The fans have been fantastic,” he said. “It is surreal in a way and maybe a bit unrealistic.

“They have seen me come back now but hopefully they will see a few better performances from me.

“It was a great feeling just to get back on the pitch again and to be able to wave to the supporters at the end.

“I am back in the squad now and available if the manager needs me. But it is going to take time to get the proper match fitness back.”

Solskjaer’s return was the one bright spot from an otherwise miserable trip to the midlands for United.

Having beaten Birmingham comfortably in the Carling Cup only eight days previously, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men were confidently expected to snaffle another three points in their quest to catch Chelsea.

With a New Year’s Eve visit from a Bolton side fully refreshed after having their clash with Middlesbrough postponed last night to be followed by a key clash with Arsenal at Highbury on January 3, Ferguson felt confident enough to leave out Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-sung from a side already lacking defensive duo Wes Brown and Mikael Silvestre.

Despite leading twice through Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney, who were netting for the 17th and 11th times respectively this term, the Red Devils were unable to hold on to their advantage and Walter Pandiani delivered a crushing blow with his late leveller.

Incredibly, although United have picked up 23 points from their last nine games, beating Chelsea along the way, they have just fallen further behind Jose Mourinho’s men.

The Red Devils now trail Chelsea by 11 points, meaning the Stamford Bridge outfit must lose four times in the second half of the season just to offer United an opportunity to overhaul them.

Given the Londoners have dropped points only twice this term – and crucially have already played all seven sides immediately below them away from home with the single exception of Bolton – the chances of Ferguson’s side reclaiming their crown are virtually non-existent.

No-one at Old Trafford will publicly give up the fight just yet but the disappointment etched over Van Nistelrooy’s face as he summed up United’s plight told its own story.

“The gap is there,” said the prolific Dutchman, who is now three clear of Frank Lampard in the race to finish as Premiership top scorer.

“Chelsea won again in the last minute. That is what they do. They keep clean sheets, score a goal and win their game.

“This is a disappointing result for us because we had the lead twice and should have done the job.

“At 2-1, we were in complete control and looking to get the third.

“But there is no time to dwell on it. There is another game waiting against Bolton on Saturday, which is a massive one for us.

“We must forget what has happened, come out and make sure we show everyone what we are made of.”

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