Federico Macheda celebrating in Manchester United match 


Tom Oldfield


Ole Gunnar Solskjaer lit up Old Trafford during his playing days for Manchester United, showing the predatory instincts that propelled the club towards their historic Treble in 1999. In many ways, he was one of a kind. He accepted a regular role as a substitute with no complaints, he rarely wasted a sight of goal and he had an uncanny knack of picking up the pace of a game instantly when coming off the bench.

These attributes, combined with Solskjaer’s likeable personality, have secured the Norwegian a place in the hearts of all Man Utd fans but he is not finished yet. Having suffered with countless injuries, and having fought back heroically every time, Solskjaer brought down the curtain on his playing career in the summer of 2007 and took up an ambassadorial role at Old Trafford. But around nine months later, he found himself in the managerial hotseat for the Man Utd reserve team.

The reserve team had made great strides under Brian McClair and Jimmy Ryan and now the Norwegian would put his stamp on the side. And it is so far, so good for Solskjaer. United finished the current campaign in second place, pipped to the title by Sunderland, and have played some superb football along the way. But perhaps the Norwegian’s biggest contribution has been the helping hand he has given to Federico Macheda, the Italian striker who introduced himself to United fans with two priceless goals last month.

Macheda, who only turns 18 in August, arrived at the club from Lazio in September 2007 and then signed professional terms at Old Trafford in August 2008. His parents and younger brother Simone moved to Manchester to help him settle and after impressing in the Under-18 side, he was quickly promoted to the reserve team, allowing Solskjaer to pass on his wisdom. Macheda made a big impact and immediately benefited from his manager’s advice, becoming more clinical and improving his all-round game.

Then came the first team’s clash with Aston Villa on 5th April.

With Man Utd missing Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov through suspension and injury respectively, Sir Alex Ferguson called Macheda from the reserves to fill up his bench. In the midst of a worrying slump, the Red Devils found themselves 2-1 down despite a promising start and Ferguson, aware that the Italian had netted a hat-trick for the reserves in March against Newcastle, threw the 17-year-old into the fray.

Macheda was brilliant, sparking what had been a pedestrian Man Utd display at times. Ronaldo soon equalised with a well-placed left-foot strike and the stadium erupted, begging for a winner. And the super sub delivered it deep in injury-time, leaving Luke Young for dead with a lightning turn and giving Brad Friedel in the Villa goal no chance as his crisp strike curled sweetly into the far corner. Cue mayhem.

The Italian, nicknamed Kiko, was swamped by his team-mates in what will be one of the lasting images of the season. Macheda was in demand after the game and told reporters: “I have dreamed of a day like this. I just turned and shot and ran to my family. I was surprised to get a chance but now I just want to keep going.”

Addressing the media, Ferguson added: “I told him ‘well done’. It’s important to keep his feet on the ground. He’ll need to handle lots of publicity over the next few days. It was a gamble but we deserved our result today because we tried to win.”

Had Man Utd dropped points that afternoon, more question marks would have surfaced regarding their title chances. Instead, they seemed to have emerged stronger for the whole experience, with many comparing it to Steve Bruce’s last gasp goal against Sheffield Wednesday on the way to the Red Devils’ first Premiership title in 1993. And it was also hugely reminiscent of Solskjaer at his very best. Macheda had picked up the pace of the game instantly, driving United forward, and he had taken his big chance with the ruthless streak that the Norwegian had displayed year after year during his glittering career.

Macheda, born in Rome and a product of the Lazio youth academy, made all the headlines the following day, only to see United dogged by suggestions from the Rome-based club that rules had been breached in their pursuit of the Italian. Ferguson shrugged off the accusations that United had spent millions on Macheda’s family to convince the youngster to move to Manchester.
Henry Winter, of the Daily Telegraph, shed more light on the situation. He wrote: “[Lazio president Claudio] Lotito was angry that Macheda, who scored United’s winner over Aston Villa, moved to Old Trafford for only £200,000 compensation. United exploited rules that stop Italian clubs awarding professional contracts to players younger than 16.” The youngster’s frustration over this regulation convinced him to walk away from Lazio, even though the club had high hopes for him, and Man Utd seemed to have done everything by the book.

A week later, Macheda did it again with another worthy impression of Solskjaer at his best. Man Utd had squandered a 1-0 lead at Sunderland and, facing the prospect of throwing away two points, Ferguson turned again to the Italian. Within a minute of coming off the bench, Macheda’s predatory instincts kicked in as he diverted Michael Carrick’s shot into the bottom corner. United returned to the top of the table and the young gun was the talk of the town again.

His reward for these two rescue acts was a surprise start in the FA Cup semi-final against Everton at Wembley. The youngster gave further evidence of his confidence and potential before making way for Berbatov and watching as United crashed to defeat on penalties.

Macheda, who has replaced Owen Hargreaves in Man Utd’s 25-man Champions League squad, may even have more up his sleeve. By giving Ferguson a Solskjaer-like option off the bench, the Italian has increased his value to the first team squad and his ability to pop up with vital goals will keep him at the forefront of the Scot’s thoughts.

So, do not be surprised to see Old Trafford’s new hero Macheda make a few more match-winning contributions in the final weeks of the campaign.