Football is a game of two halves, a fact never proven truer than during the two-legged tie between Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain which concluded in the UEFA Champions League this week. Beyond the game itself, there were other contests being fought; Solskjaer and Tuchel, Di Maria with the United support; and player comparisons were coming to the fore as fans whetted their appetites for the games.
The most eye-catching individual contest, PSG’s young French forward Kylian Mbappé against Manchester United’s English hero Marcus Rashford had the potential to be the new Messi and Ronaldo. Who would come out on top in the clash of football’s most promising youngsters?
The slightly older Marcus Rashford broke onto the scene in 2016 but his career largely stagnated under José Mourinho while Mbappé’s career has gone from strength to strength since his debut season in 2017 alongside Falcao at Monaco. The Frenchman has won Ligue 1 with PSG and the World Cup with France in that time, demonstrating electrifying pace and unrivalled finishing. He has scored 30 goals for PSG this year and has largely outshone his superstar attacking partner Neymar.
Rashford made a big impression during his debut season under Louis Van Gaal but stagnated in his time under Mourinho, coming in a team where many players struggled to perform. Rashford was at times exceptional for England during this period which brought his club form into stark contrast, but kept fans hoping that his excellence could one day come to the fore. Since Mourinho’s sacking, Rashford has been the stalwart of the Manchester United front line and demonstrated the talent which many had believed in.
Marcus Rashford has scored 11 goals for Manchester United this season; with his goals per game increasing from 0.32 under Mourinho to 0.62 under Solskjaer. Equally, his shots per game have moved from 1.91 per game to 4.47 per game.
Hopes were high going into the first leg of the Champions League tie that Rashford versus Mbappé would be a true heavyweight contest of the game’s brightest stars.
It was not to be. Mbappé, on the biggest stage shone as brightly as anyone has done at Old Trafford. His pace terrified the United defenders and he didn’t need many opportunities to score. It was a dominant, domineering performance, further galvanising the Ronaldo comparison, and especially the hat-trick the Brazilian had scored at Old Trafford in 2003 which earned a standing ovation from the Old Trafford faithful.
Mbappé was just that good, and on a night where United were wholly outclassed, Rashford never got a second thought. It was a knock-out performance from both PSG and Mbappé, and the contests were settled. Mbappé had solidified his place as the heir to Messi and Ronaldo, whereas Rashford had never gotten out of first gear.
The second leg was to be a mere technicality, and given the youth filled team travelling to the French capital from Manchester, most United supporters had low expectations.
In the return leg however, Mbappé had a frustrating night. He looked set to end the tie in the second half with a chance to round David De Gea, but the ball stuck beneath his feet and De Gea produced a great save. That pace which electrified the first leg was never given the opportunity to breathe and Mbappé seemed immobilised.
Mbappé had still landed a knock-out blow to Marcus Rashford in the first leg however, and the comparisons between the two seemed long complete. To his credit, Rashford did not concede in the face of staggering odds. He worked hard all night, and had a hand in both Romelu Lukaku’s goals for Manchester United in the first half; pressuring Kehrer into a bad pass which set up the first and driving a shot awkwardly at Buffon which allowed Lukaku to score the second.
It was still not a performance as domineering as Mbappé in the first leg and little that Manchester United did in the second half would create opportunities for Rashford to shine in an attacking sense. PSG were dominant but failed to capitalise. PSG manager Thomas Tuchel complained after the game “It’s as if everyone said to themselves: ‘They have two goals while they do not attack.’ We controlled the game, it was a totally ridiculous result.”
Opportunities were sparse for Rashford until he grabbed the ball to score the decisive penalty in the fourth minute of added time. The decision was greatly delayed due to VAR (Taithi Chong had been preparing to take a corner) and Rashford was further delayed because of gamesmanship on behalf of the PSG players. He held his nerve greatly to slot the ball home, showing real composure and clutch finishing to win the tie.
It wasn’t that the penalty cancelled out Mbappé’s heroics in the first game; but it did ensure that over the course of the two legs, Mbappé was not the outright winner anymore. If anything, Mbappé’s heroics in the first leg compared with Rashford’s heroics in the second might now be reduced to a tight points decision. Mbappé might have been the star performer at Old Trafford, but Marcus Rashford earned his own plaudits in the Parc Du Prince and won the tie for the Mancunians.
If Messi and Ronaldo are to have clear-cut heirs in the modern game, they might well be Kylian Mbappé and Marcus Rashford. The pair are early in their careers and it will take more epic contests like that seen on Wednesday night before a definite winner can be declared. For the neutral supporters, and those of Manchester United and PSG, it’s a thrilling prospect. There is plenty of upside for both players in the modern game, and while Mbappé might appear the more polished prospect, there is a belief that Rashford can improve steadily under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and become a genuine superstar in world football.
For Manchester United fans, it was reassuring to see a homegrown player, with the club’s faith in his hands, bravely step up and hammer home the spot kick. There were no theatrics; no panekas, no lazy slotting it down the middle – just power and precision to put it beyond Buffon’s reach. Mbappé and Rashford will have other nights; they were both influential in their team’s successes over the two ties but gladly for United fans, it was Rashford and his goal that won the night.