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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must rediscover big-game touch to end Manchester United’s semi-final jinx

To lose one semi-final may be considered unfortunate, but to lose four?

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is still waiting to win his first trophy with Manchester United and at this point, you wonder whether he would settle for a first runners-up medal.

This fourth semi-final defeat – to Manchester City in the League Cup – was at exactly the same stage of exactly the same competition to exactly the same opponents as Solskjaer’s first disappointment a year ago.

It begged the question: do United suffer from a mental block when it comes to the last four of knock-out competitions?

Solskjaer does not believe so. “Tonight it was about just that lack of quality compared to them,” he said in the 184th Manchester derby’s post-match post-mortem. “We played against a good Man City team. They deserved to win.

“When you get to this stage, you play against better teams, so of course the quality comes down to it,” he added.

“Some nights, [it’s] margins. Tonight we concede two set-plays, which is very disappointing. So it’s not a mental thing but we need to be better, that’s the answer. I’m not sure if that is a mental bit. I think it’s some practice, some habits and some desire at times.”

When a team repeatedly loses high-profile knock-out ties at the business end of cup competitions, their mentality is the first thing to be questioned and often too easily.

Solskjaer’s diagnosis is probably more accurate.

In all four semi-finals that United have lost over the past year, they have come up against opponents who can be considered at least their equals in terms of quality.

There was no shame in losing to Chelsea in last season’s FA Cup or Sevilla in the Europa League. City, meanwhile, are simply a superior side.

Apart from the Chelsea defeat, United have been competitive in the three other ties – leading early against Sevilla, almost overturning a first-leg deficit against City last year and they arguably looked like the more threatening of the two sides until John Stones’ breakthrough at Old Trafford on Wednesday night.

But the semi-final defeats – and many of United’s games this season – buck what was once considered to be a consistent Solskjaer trend.

This time last year, the familiar criticism of United was that they were comfortable playing against teams of a similar calibre who would leave space in behind for Solskjaer’s counter-attacking style to exploit.

United won five of their league games against the so-called ‘top six’ last season, drawing three and losing two of the others. If they were in a mini-league, only champions Liverpool would have taken more points.

This season, United have failed to win any of their four league games against other ‘top six’ clubs, drawing twice and losing twice. This League Cup meeting with City resulted in another defeat, while they could only draw away to last season’s fifth-placed club Leicester City on Boxing Day.

Even in Europe, stunning wins against Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig to open their Champions League campaign were not followed up in the reverse fixtures, levelling out their record against their group’s other two heavyweights and ultimately culminating in an early exit.

The happy flip-side of all this is that United are now picking up more points against the types of teams they once struggled against, which is helping to power a title challenge that once seemed unlikely.

Yet that title challenge will not bear fruit unless Solskjaer’s big-game approach starts to produce results again. And until it does, that wait for a first trophy – or even a first final – is only likely to go on longer.

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