Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would have recognised Tuesday night only too well. During his time as a player at Old Trafford, Manchester United often suffered at the hands of quality opposition in European football. Solskjaer’s manager Alex Ferguson looked back at those years with regret. Ferguson would particularly remember the matches at home when the Red Devils passed up opportunities to burnish their continental pedigree.
The problem was especially pronounced in the early 2000s when Real Madrid (twice), Bayern Munich, and AC Milan earned memorable wins at Old Trafford in the knockout stage. Add the failure to defeat Bayer Leverkusen (2002) and Porto (2004) in Manchester, when United was expected to get the job done, and you have reams to write about the club’s inability to translate its pre-eminent status on the domestic scene to Europe.
At least Solskjaer came into the tie against Paris Saint-Germain with less pretension. United are no longer the leading club in England and its expensively-assembled squad is still a few notches below the Champions League contenders. But the tag of an underdog suited the club in recent weeks. Solskjaer’s men certainly seem to feed off it and the opening exchanges on Tuesday carried more evidence of the rediscovered confidence.
As soon as the match kicked off, United’s pace threatened to overwhelm PSG. A high press forced the visitor’s defence into misplaced passes as the French club was harried and rushed. PSG settled only after five minutes, when an Angel di Maria shot swerved close past David de Gea’s goal. A more predictable pattern developed thereafter as the French champions began to see more of the ball with United a palpable threat on the counter. Solskjaer’s team seemed too quick for PSG or too clever when Pogba ran past Marquinhos into the box only to be denied by Gianluigi Buffon.
But PSG gradually asserted itself, only to be let down by errant passing in the final third which greatly frustrated manager Thomas Tuchel. The match was crying out for a moment of decisiveness and the absence of Neymar and Cavani was not overlooked.
Mbappe was present but on the margins for majority of the first-half. It took him 25 minutes to spark to life when he finally got an opportunity to run into the box from the right flank. Otherwise, thanks to the current injury problems at PSG, Mbappe found the role of a central striker limiting. Yet, his quality could not be wrapped away entirely. It shone through again, only a few minutes after that dribbling sprint, when Draxler set him free in the box and Mbappe timed his run well to set up a one-on-one situation. He missed the goal only because goalie David de Gea rushed towards the striker and tightened the angle.
Such flashpoints were rare. As the first half wound to a close, it was ironic to note that, for all the money spent, PSG had been forced into some odd selections. Dani Alves was in a wide attacking role while Marquinhos continued in his relatively new position as holding midfielder. But the latter proved to be useful for Tuchel as his partnership with the impeccable Marco Verratti was one of the reasons why PSG was able to gain control.
Remarkably, it was Solskjaer who had the pleasure of putting out his first-choice team. But his plan to hunt PSG down with pace took a blow when both Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial had to go off injured around half-time. Their replacements Alexis Sanchez and Juan Mata do not lack quality but they did not possess the same gifts. The burst of acceleration provided by United’s young tyros could have been crucial as Kimpembe was struggling to keep up from the beginning. In fact, he flirted with a red card a few times after being booked early. The Frenchman was one of the victims of referee Daniele Orsato’s card-happy approach that saw eight bookings and a sending-off on the night. Kimpembe’s occasional recklessness, however, was spared with uncharacteristic leniency.
The central defender’s pot of luck seemed bottomless and he drew out a big share in the 53rd minute when he ran unmarked to cushion di Maria’s corner home with a volley. It was particularly sweet for the Argentinean to be involved in the goal as he had been booed and abused all game long; di Maria did not forget to give back some as PSG celebrated the lead. A bottle was swiftly thrown at him at the next corner a couple of minutes later, but United’s fans must have been left more worried by what Dani Alves threw back. A piledriver followed which missed the target only thanks to a sharp deflection.
Di Maria did earn the final laugh soon, though, when he assisted for Mbappe’s close-range finish as PSG counter-attacked with devastating precision. It was just the kind of quality football that has tormented United in the past. Mbappe could have made it three-nil only a couple of minutes later as Solskjaer’s players trembled and threatened to fall away. Although the host recovered to ensure an embarrassing defeat did not come to pass, United remained subdued for the remainder of the match.
Even though the Red Devils were allowed to have plenty of the ball, a lack of cutting edge meant PSG won out comfortably. All that was left were the sharp reminders of the gap in quality. And if that was not enough, Paul Pogba’s sending-off may have sounded the death knell of United’s Champions League campaign. Without the charismatic Frenchman, the next 90 minutes in this tie are bereft of promise.
Solskjaer obviously disagrees. After all, ever since his appointment, the manager has succeeded in making the players and fans believe that United’s potential is far greater than its current position. But even Solskjaer had to admit on Tuesday night that United got a reality check against PSG. The past has certainly allowed the Norwegian coach to evoke beautiful memories, but it haunts the Red Devils too on European nights.
Priyansh is an independent writer in New Delhi. He tweets @Privaricate
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Updated Date: Feb 13, 2019 09:49:00 IST