Despite enduring one of its worst run of plays in the club’s entire history, Manchester United’s blueprint of free-flowing football has finally resurfaced in the last two months, leaving opposition defences in tatters. At one point, the 20-time Premier League champions were lying sixth, chiefly because the players and the manager were not on the same wavelength, leading to a disastrous first half to the season.
Ahead of United’s last-16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain, interim coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was asked: “Do you think the games against the likes of PSG and Liverpool will be decisive in your chances of getting the job on a permanent basis?”
"That's too simple," Solskjaer replied with a wry smile. "You need to change the script now. You've got so many ways to ask those questions, but there are still a few more months left of the season for me to do whatever I can for the club."
Solskjaer tackled the media with ease, just the way he would deceive defenders to score goals in his heyday, but the results under him have led to journalists and fans alike throwing the same question in different ways possible. He has built a reputation of his own with a splendid start, after all.
As the record stands, United have registered 10 wins in 11 games since replacing Jose Mourinho with the Norwegian in December. Consider this: In the last nine Premier League games, United have earned 25 points and scored 23 goals. Tottenham sit second with 21 points. Sorry, Mauricio Pochettino. The winds of change flowing through Old Trafford are palpable. United are far from the laughing stock they were and the need to lure Pochettino from Spurs looks slimmer by the day.
Under Solskjaer, only Burnley managed to ruffle United feathers and even that was a hard pill to digest. “The players are still disappointed with the two points we dropped (vs Burnley) and so am I.” His Sir Alex Ferguson-like charm makes him a strong contender to take the job on a full-time basis. Unlike United under Mourinho, Louis van Gaal and David Moyes, Solskjaer recaliberated the playing style to resemble that of its yesteryear under Ferguson. With assistant Mike Phelan by his side, the club is soaring high.
When the last-16 draw was made in December, Mourinho was the manager of United and the tie appeared to be a potential cakewalk for Neymar and PSG. However, when the two teams meet for their Champions League knock-out fixture this Tuesday, both Mourinho and Neymar will be absent for the tie. For good? Time will decide that.
But the problems have been stacking up for Thomas Tuchel at PSG, with injuries to key men giving him a real selection headache in midfield ahead of the first leg.
PSG lead Lille by 10 points after 22 matches with two games in hand, and the Ligue 1 title is theirs to lose. However, their recent performances raise a slew of questions about the form the Paris side is in, losing 2-1 to Guingamp in the French Cup in early January only to beat them 9-0 10 days later in Ligue 1. Solskjaer was one of the spectators when Lyon came from behind to hand PSG their first defeat in the league this season. Not to forget, PSG needed extra time to beat third-division Villefranche in the French Cup last week.
Tuchel would certainly be dreading the timing of the clash. The world’s most expensive player, Neymar, is out injured, and proven goalscorer Edinson Cavani has also been added to the injury list, along with Thomas Meunier, who is likely to miss both games against United. Marco Verratti is also a doubt, the midfielder managing only 59 minutes against Bordeaux after recovering from an ankle injury.
Do the Parisians have the depth to fill the void left behind by the attacking players? Not really. Former United misfit Angel di Maria, Julian Draxler and wonderkid Kylian Mbappe carry a lot of pressure on their shoulders for the forthcoming ties. Defensively, only Juan Bernat and Layvin Kurzawa emerge as a threat to United with Marquinhos likely to play in the midfield. The likes of Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard can bring 34-year-old Thiago Silva to his knees should United exploit spaces at the back.
United have their own problems but they stand far away from being a defensive trainwreck or having any shortage of attacking options. Victor Lindelof along with Eric Bailly and Phil Jones has built a formidable centre-back partnership, while Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera have granted the licence to Paul Pogba to lead the bludgeoning attacks.
Spotlight on wonderkids, Rashford and Mbappe
Ever since his two-goal debut against FC Midtjylland in 2016, Rashford has instilled faith into the Manchester faithful and proved his worth time and again.
By finding the net eight times in his last 13 games, Rashford has drawn comparisons to Mbappe with his blistering pace up front and wonderful attacking link-up play.
But on Tuesday, the 21-year-old will step into unfamiliar territory in his quest to stamp his authority as United’s first-choice frontman after successfully pipping Romelu Lukaku in the pecking order.
So, comparisons with Mbappe are justified given his recent run of form. However, Rashford isn't experienced enough to lead the attack against top sides in Europe. Whereas, French teenager Mbappe has caused headaches to top sides not only in Europe but also at international events.
“There will understandably be comparisons. I have seen Mbappe playing live only once and have been working with Marcus every single day... he’s going to be a top quality player,” said the United boss. “I love working with him. I am sure PSG will look at Marcus the way we look at Mbappe.
“Mbappe had a fantastic rise to stardom, he’s got a fantastic smile about him, a great enthusiasm,” he added.
The United frontman is in hot form, but he needs to deliver on the bigger stages if he is to be considered one of the best in the world.
While Solskjaer oozed confidence during the press conference, Tuchel seemed stiff as he dismissed the notion that Mbappe must step up without Neymar and Cavani and tried to temper the expectations around the France international.
"We must not put pressure on Kylian to replace Neymar and Edinson," the coach said. "He has his own qualities, but it is not his job to do what they do. Kylian needs to be free to play with confidence. I want for us to be able to help him by finding him with good passes. He must play with a good state of mind, and with confidence.
"Kylian is here to grow and this is the perfect moment for that."
Previous exits at this stage of the Champions League at the hands of Barcelona and Real Madrid have left a sour taste in the mouth of Manchester United faithful. But it won’t be a bed of roses for PSG in Manchester. Even Tuchel agrees that Manchester United are a different team now, raring to breach the impenetrable defences of the best teams of Europe.
The team and manager are heading in the same direction. That’s what the last two months have taught us. And despite the series of challenging fixtures — Chelsea, Liverpool, Crystal Palace, Southampton, PSG, Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea — lying ahead for the Norwegian, the clash against PSG couldn’t have come at a better time.
Updated Date: Feb 12, 2019 18:46:31 IST