If only Manchester United’s central defence could stand as firm as the forbidding wall erected by the club to keep protesting fans out of Old Trafford. Harry Maguire, usually an every minute of every game mainstay, has been absent for United’s two midweek home matches separated by only a day this week. Though United’s captain tried to urge his teammates on from the stands this week, United lost three times in a Thursday to Thursday run which encompassed four games at the start of a May that has been anything but merry. Ten goals were conceded. Roma last Thursday was erratic and considered the poorest performance of the season by the coaching staff, poor in that the players didn’t follow their instructions. It mattered less as United hammered the Italians 6-2 in the first leg to all but reach the Europa League final. Tuesday’s defeat to Leicester can also be explained given 10 changes were made and the side featured two debutants, but “Manchester United 2-4 Liverpool” will never compute in the brains of United fans. Believe it or not, the United players were well up for the game, too. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hopes ‘nights like this’ will keep Edinson Cavani at Manchester United One win from their remaining two games will be enough to see United finish second, a position few fans expected to reach at the start of this season. Combine that with a Europa League win against Villarreal in Gdansk on May 26 and this season would be considered a success – for now. But United have lost the consistency they worked so hard to build up and Maguire’s absence is keenly felt. Eric Bailly has stepped in for Maguire and the individual performances have been as unconvincing as the team’s. Against Leicester he looked unsure with time and space on the ball – although it was in a much-changed team, and he struggled against Liverpool in a more familiar line-up. Bailly can be his own worst enemy and he’s one reason why United have been extensively scouting central defenders Bailly’s defensive partner, Victor Lindelof, moved to the left of the central pairing against Liverpool. Both were told about the tactical challenge of dealing with Jota and Firmino, of them dropping deep and the runs behind from Salah or Mane when that happens. Were told that when Aaron Wan Bissaka or Luke Shaw pressed Trent Alexander Arnold or Andy Robertson, the remaining back three had to cover the width of the pitch. It’s a brave approach but one which had served United well against Liverpool. The problem was the personnel rather than the plan. Bailly is a popular player with his teammates, but his proactivity and understanding is nowhere near the level of Maguire or Lindelof. United’s other central defensive options are Axel Tuanzebe and Phil Jones. You don’t sense that Solskjaer compares either to the greats he played with. Man United and Liverpool fans overseas can fight back against football’s greedy owners There’s a nervousness when Bailly plays that won’t go away. He was the only player who had featured in the Leicester defeat 48 hours earlier but the Ivorian needed no resting – he’d started only 11 league games since the start of the season and didn’t play a minute in the Champions League, while another injury and Coronavirus kept him out for half the eight Europa League games so far. It’s par for the course – just 65 league games in five seasons since he joined from Villarreal to play for Jose Mourinho, that’s 13 per season. Even if you add all his cup appearances, he has not played more than 20 in any of the last four seasons. Bailly has played under 1,500 minutes for United this term, Maguire over 3,000. Bailly’s performance in Rome last week was a microcosm of what he can do, sublime to the ridiculous, often in the same minute. This is someone who played himself into contention at the start of the season ... and then made a mistake after three minutes in the 1-6 defeat to Spurs. He’s rapid and effective in the air too. He’s a reactive defender and that’s what fans can like about him as he flies into tackles and makes rescue blocks, but hearts are in mouths when the ball is near him. It bounced up against his hand after two minutes then he hammered Nat Phillips after winning the ball on the edge of his area. He got away with that one, correctly pointing to the ball he’d just won. Bailly can be his own worst enemy and he’s one reason why United have been extensively scouting central defenders – including one at his former club, Pau Torres of Villarreal. If there was absolute conviction in Bailly then attention would be diverted elsewhere, but his games played stats are poor and several times at United he’s felt like he doesn’t have the confidence of his coaches. Bailly was given a new contract recently because United wouldn’t want him to leave for free – he’s good enough to play Premier League football and on his day a top defender, but those days don’t happen enough. Great United sides have been built on solid central defensive partnerships and, be it because of injury or non-selection, Bailly has never played enough games to be considered solid. Maguire’s importance has been shown in his absence. “Harry has been amazing since he came to the club, he’s been more or less ever present,” manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer told the Post . “When a player who is a leader – the captain with his status – isn’t there, then his presence is missed. But then we’ve got good players who can come in and it’s a chance for everyone to take on that leadership. We’ll be without him for the next two games but hopefully we can get him for the final.” Hopefully, indeed. Solskjaer always puts the most optimistic face on events. He was rightly furious with the scheduling of the games this week – and the results of those games won’t lift that mood. Before Tuesday, no team had lost as few as United’s four league games. The hard work in the league has been done, now United must rise up one final time against Villarreal to seal this tough season with a smile and a first trophy for Solskjaer.