Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Stefano Pioli have proved critics wrong to earn the right to be at Manchester United and Milan, Massimo Taibi says.
United host the Rossoneri on Thursday in the first leg of the Europa League last 16 in what will be their 11th competitive meeting but the first outside the European Cup or Champions League.
Since they last faced one another in the Champions League last 16 11 years ago, when United won 7-2 on aggregate, each club has fallen far from their previous positions at the top of English and Italian football.
Milan’s last Scudetto triumph came in 2011, while United have not won the Premier League since Alex Ferguson’s final season in charge in 2012-13.
There have been signs of recovery under Solskjaer and Pioli, however. United are second in the league this term, 11 points behind leaders Manchester City after their 2-0 derby win, while Milan are above champions Juventus in Serie A and only six points behind leaders Inter.
Taibi enjoyed only brief spells as a keeper at each club, with high-profile mistakes leading to rather perfunctory exits, but he went on to make more than 550 club appearances in Italy in a respectable career.
The 51-year-old therefore knows only too well the way the Red Devils and Rossoneri can be magnets for criticism, and he thinks Pioli and Solskjaer deserve immense credit for the work they have done in restoring respectability at two of the world’s grandest clubs.
1 – Among the 67 managers Pep Guardiola has faced more than three times across all competitions as a top-flight boss, Ole Gunnar Solskjær is the only one to have beaten the Spaniard (4) more often that he has lost to Guardiola (3). Devil. pic.twitter.com/RKl7lhGLJq
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 7, 2021
Taibi told Stats Perform News: “If these two managers have managed Milan and United for a while now, it is because they deserve it.
“In football, there are no presents, let alone at such big clubs who are always in the eye of the critics’ storm. They very well deserve the clubs they are managing now. They started off in sceptical environments but they proved them wrong with results.
“I spent a few months with Solskjaer and I was impressed how easy it was for him to score, even coming from the bench. I remember they called him the ‘angel-faced killer’ because he looked like a decent kid but in front of goal was ruthless like a killer.
“I remember he was one of the many people in Manchester who tried to help me settle. Because he was a superb player, a champion who managed to carve out his shining space among Andy Cole, Dwight York and Teddy Sheringham and ended up scoring the winning goal in 1999 final versus Bayern Munich.
“A man who started humble and became great as a player and a manager.”
Milan will be without a host of key names for the visit to Old Trafford, including former United striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but Taibi thinks their true strength lies in their collective endeavour.
He believes Solskjaer has fostered a similar ethos at United, with star names such as Bruno Fernandes lifting a squad of Europa League quality to a higher standing.
“Milan’s strength is the collective Pioli managed to create, just like United. In these two squads that are Europa League level, I dare say, there are some individuals who are added value and lift the quality to Champions League level.
“At Milan, you have Ibrahimovic despite being 39 years old, or [Gianluigi] Donnarumma, real world-class players who would play in any club aiming at winning the Champions League.
100 – AC Milan are the fourth side to have picked up 100+ points in the top-5 European leagues since 1/1/2020 onwards, after Manchester City, Bayern München and Real Madrid (101 for the Rossoneri). Flames.#VeronaMilan pic.twitter.com/WT7SmRPdp8
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) March 7, 2021
“The same goes for my ex-colleague, because I played with Solskjaer, who can boast Bruno Fernandes and the great striker [Marcus Rashford] or [David] De Gea, a keeper I like a lot.
“Solskjaer, just like Milan, managed to create a good group with some individual talent that brings that extra bit of quality you sometimes need.
“They are both having great seasons in their respective leagues. United have just won their derby, which is always a nerve-racking game, although I guess City are destined to win the title… just like Inter, I reckon.
“Both Milan and United have started the season to become more solid, to secure Champions League berths, and to me, they are working very well.
Despite some infamous errors against Southampton and Chelsea in his short-lived United career, Taibi still holds the club close to his heart – and even still fits into his old training shirt.
“Of course, watching this match is special for me. I spent two years at Milan and only some months at United but it is not down to length of time, it is about feelings and memories that settled in.
“I still feel a link to Milan and even to United, although I didn’t stay long. As you know, you just called me while I was training. And I was training with this 1998 United training kit, the only one big size I have now for my fat belly. All the other shirts don’t fit anymore!”