Manchester United travelled to Paris in remarkably buoyant mood given their mountain to scale and depleted squad. Since losing to Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg at home, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team beat Chelsea away – never happens – and suffered a flurry of key injuries in farcical circumstances to then league-leaders Liverpool. The stalemate with Liverpool was notable for the immense buzz around Old Trafford and boisterousness of supporters in the second half despite the interruptions and state of the match. United adapted confidently beating Palace away – tricky – and also Southampton, reminiscent of a classic Ferguson Saturday 3pm home victory. Saints were unfortunate to come away from the game with nothing, but United eventually got the winner.
A good run after United’s first defeat under Solskjær to markedly superior opposition, but facing Mbappé et al again wasn’t all that palatable. Two nil down. Two away goals down. Where no team has overturned such a deficit in the competition – one in which many of the travelling squad aren’t old enough to buy cigarettes filling in for 10 regular starters.
No one really believed they could do it in Paris. Score first, see what happens. Maybe. Scoring at least two and keeping PSG out as much as possible? Fanciful. Even with PSG’s record negotiating Champions League knockout games, it was a stretch without factoring in United’s options. Midfield was especially threadbare and United’s best player, Paul Pogba, suspended. Yet there was positivity. A juicy free hit in Solskjær’s caretaker remit where, whatever happens, one or two of the kids are going to feature on the biggest club stage at the Parc de Princes. It’s been worse.
Solskjær talked up the possibility in earnest, naturally. The seductive romance of United, United in Europe, and United with Solskjær was too obvious, too easy, and long gone. Nice dream – not happening. But Solskjær was serious, stressed that they had a plan and, with it, a chance. Solskjær needed his players to execute that plan and, if they did, they might prevail.
It still sounded like the things managers often say in press conferences before the game. Solskjær pitched his cause with authority, though, fast outgrowing his temporary role at a ridiculous pace. They’ll definitely have a go, United – another reason for cheer.
Playing 4-4-2, a midfield of Ashley Young, Scott McTominay, Fred, and Andreas Pereira, it turns out United did score first. Romelu Lukaku doing brilliantly to squeeze the ball in while sliding at pace from an acute angle. Only a couple of minutes gone, United had loads of time to... concede ten minutes later. Ah, well. Yet PSG were flustered, if still dangerous, and in a breathtaking half Lukaku snaffled a second. Now then.
A customary first-half substitution saw Eric Bailly getting hooked for replaced by Diogo Dalot who galloped on and immediately improved United’s right side. If Alexis Sánchez’s absence prior perhaps liberated United, Bailly’s was a necessity during. Solskjær — presented with yet another headache — reacted positively. Ferguson always felt he was a lucky manager, and some of that might have rubbed off on his super sub.
Like Ferguson, there was plenty more to it than fortuitousness. United may have intended to keep the first half tighter than it played out, but delivered on their game plan second-half to make sure they were in the conversation as the match wore on. Meanwhile, McTominay and Fred were taking names in central midfield; Pereira savvily pissing off the Parisians taking the sting out of a period of pressure; Young spotting danger making a game-changing intervention. Complete buy-in. Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelöf holding their line and everything together at the back, and when they weren’t their teammates were digging them out. Lukaku was tying it all together at the other end, not only with well-taken goals, but intelligently carrying out tasks to disrupt the opposition and maintain United’s shape.
The underlying theme of togetherness Solskjær has rapidly nurtured is being repaid by his players returning the favour with effort and performances. It was no more evident than now against PSG, with so many absentees, and United relying on the wider squad. Fringe players had to step up for the manager and every one of them did on Wednesday night in France. That still wasn’t enough. As it could have done at home to Southampton in United’s previous match, the last-16 knockout tie started to drift away. Minutes draining from the scoreboard, acceptance creeping in. Not to be. Decent go, though. Happens. Added time was being played in Paris, no “and Solskjær has won it!”
Marcus Rashford hadn’t been having the best of games and didn’t look like he was moving all that freely through large parts of the match. Unfathomably, on 90+4 he was stood over his penalty with Lukaku’s blessing. Breathing, focusing. Teammates on the pitch, on the bench and watching at home waiting to see if Rashford would score – attempting his first penalty for United – to see them through to the quarter-finals.
Everyone was behind him. Solskjær and his staff have instilled that spirit in the team. You will get your chance, and you will be supported if you want to take it. That probably even extends to Sánchez, or at least it did before he got injured. Lukaku was not in Solskjær’s preferred starting line-up with a fully fit squad but has taken his recent opportunity. Lukaku kept plugging away against Southampton and it came good for him and United. Solskjær is now talking up a formidable partnership with Rashford.
While working his magic, Solskjær has been as good as his word. And his word plays on an intangible quality that Ferguson had with his teams – a quality that is synonymous with United. A belief that has been absent since Ferguson. Players are accordingly playing for each other and the club, and miracles can happen.
Rashford smashed the ball past Gianluigi Buffon. Cool as you like. Remarkable.