When Manchester United drew Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, it seemed a bleak matchup for the men in red. PSG boast a star-studded lineup unlike any other in the world, while United had scuffled up to that point and were just hours from making a managerial change. Now, with the Reds soaring and PSG beset by injury, this might be the most intriguing tie of the whole round.
Saturday’s emphatic 3-0 win at Fulham continued Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s unbeaten start as United’s caretaker manager. That makes it ten wins from eleven, with the Reds also moving back into the Premier League’s top four. It’s been an amazing run for Solskjaer — but PSG will easily be the best team he’s faced since returning to Manchester.
At Craven Cottage, Ole made six changes to his side, opting to rest Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Ashley Young, and Victor Lindelöf for the Champions League. And considering what happened this weekend to the PSG players that Thomas Tuchel risked, he definitely made the right decision. But more on PSG’s woes a little later.
As poorly as Manchester United started at Fulham — and they were lucky to not fall behind early on — the Reds turned it around and thoroughly dominated the match. Paul Pogba opened the scoring from a tight angle, Anthony Martial skipped through Fulham’s defense to double the lead a few minutes later, and Pogba completed his brace with a second-half penalty.
Best of all, United’s professional performance allowed Solskjaer to sub out Martial, Pogba, and Ander Herrera for a little extra pre-PSG rest.
Great result, no doubt. But the side’s lackadaisical start bodes poorly for Tuesday night. Relegation-threatened Fulham might waste gilt-edged chances for an early lead, but Kylian Mbappé and Ángel Di María won’t. If United repeat that opening spell against PSG, they might be down 2-0 or 3-0 in the blink of an eye.
With away goals at a premium in the Champions League, the Reds cannot afford such defensive lapses. Lindelöf and Young will be back in the starting eleven, but Solskjaer has a big decision to make on the second center back. Eric Bailly possesses the most raw talent of any defender at the club, but he’s such a wildcard from game to game. Still, if Bailly’s switched on, he’s probably the best option to partner Lindelöf. It’s a gamble.
Although the Parisians overflow with world-class talent at almost every position, this is the perfect time to take them on. Last month, Neymar suffered a foot injury that will keep him out of action for months. Obviously, that’s a huge loss — the prolific Brazilian had already scored 20 goals this season.
Missing Neymar is bad enough, but Edinson Cavani now also looks extremely doubtful to make the trip. On Saturday, Cavani scored the winner for PSG with a 42nd minute penalty against Bordeaux, but crumpled to the pitch after his spot kick and limped off shortly thereafter. He was removed at halftime, leaving PSG suddenly shorthanded on the frontline.
“There is no good news this morning,” Tuchel admitted on Sunday. “[Cavani] has undergone exams and there will be more tests. My feeling is that it will be very difficult for him to feature in Manchester.”
But that’s not all — right back Thomas Meunier clashed heads with a Bordeaux player and suffered a concussion. He’s out, too.
Oh, and Adrien Rabiot remains an outcast after refusing to agree to a contract extension. The midfielder hasn’t played since December 11 and looks to be completely out of the first-team picture. There’s a lot of drama surrounding PSG right now.
The only bright spot for PSG health-wise is the recent recovery of Marco Verratti. The club’s midfield magician sprained his ankle last month against Guingamp and most considered him a doubt for the weekend match with Bordeaux. Instead, Verratti started and played for nearly an hour in his return. Will Tuchel risk his star midfielder at Old Trafford on just three days of rest?
Amazingly, even with so much high-profile talent ruled out for Tuesday, PSG can still call on top-class players like Thiago Silva, Marquinhos, Di María, Julian Draxler, and Mbappé. Two-thirds of their feared attacking trio might be sidelined, but United’s defense will have their hands full with the 20 year-old wunderkind. Mbappé’s stats are out of this world — 22 goals and 14 assists in just 27 matches. The kid’s worth every penny of that £160 million fee.
PSG hold a commanding lead atop Ligue 1, but look a bit vulnerable of late. Lyon dealt Tuchel’s side their first league loss earlier this month, just a few weeks after crashing out of the League Cup against last-place Guingamp. They remain alive in the French Cup, but needed extra time last week to defeat lower-league Villefranche.
To be fair, PSG might just be looking ahead to the Champions League. That’s the club’s clear priority this season. Even after defeating Bordeaux 1-0, though, PSG hardly enter the United tie brimming with confidence.
Tuesday should be another famous European night at Old Trafford, featuring two sides with legit dreams of winning it all. It also marks the start of a gauntlet of difficult matches for Manchester United that will shape the club’s season — and the managerial future of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.