Manchester United achieved a remarkable feat by defeating Paris Saint Germain 3-1 at Parc des Princes. It was a miracle really. Pre-game, I was not at all confident United could overturn the result to qualify. The caretaker manager, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer sounded bullish though. I felt he just had to say the right things. After all, there was a match to be played and anything can happen in a football match.
United entered this match clearly outplayed and tactically out-maneuvered in the first leg at Old Trafford. There was an evident gulf in quality between United and the big teams in Europe. That gulf was already apparent from their encounters against Juventus in the group stage.
The Red Devils entered this game against an expensively assembled team with 10 first team players out injured. All I wanted was for United to give a good account of themselves in Paris. Considering the absentees, lack of experience and quality, I had no faith that United could turn this tie around.
Paris Saint Germain certainly aided United in their quest for a comeback. Two minutes in, a sloppy back pass was nipped by Romelu Lukaku who rounded Gianluigi Buffon to open the scoring. PSG had a very strong response to going 0-1 down.
They pinned United back and were particularly exploiting United down their right flank. United was being forced to sit deep. They lacked the composure to keep possession and take the sting out of PSG’s attacks. At a time when PSG might have felt vulnerable, instead of pressing to score a second, United was pinned back.
PSG got a deserved equalizer. The source was an unfamiliar one but predictable as it came through United’s right. Juan Bernat got PSG’s equalizer. At that point, it looked like PSG would press on to score more and kill the tie but it did not quite happen.
Marcus Rashford then took aim with a speculative long-range strike. It was squirmed by Buffon and Lukaku was on hand to tap in United’s second. Eric Bailly who had been exposed time and again on United’s right wing was brought off for Diogo Dalot. The young Portuguese made a huge impact coming off the bench against Southampton and did the same here.
With his introduction and United’s lead, United got more confident in keeping possession and going forward. They created half chances but couldn’t find a third before half-time. In the second half, United produced a very disciplined tactical display. PSG had most of the possession but hardly created anything.
The ball was in United’s net once but Angel Di Maria was correctly flagged offside. United was defending very well but was not creating anything. They possessed no attacking threat. If they were to qualify, they needed a third goal. United got a stroke of luck when Dalot’s long-range strike deflected off Kimpembe for a corner.
After a review with the VAR system, it was adjudged that he had handled the ball and a penalty was awarded. Rashford stepped up to emphatically slam the penalty pass Buffon. There was still 5 additional injury time minutes to be played due to the VAR consultation. United hung on to spark ecstatic scenes at the full time.
This was a victory of character and resilience. In the first leg, Solksjaer had been out-thought by Thomas Tuchel. In this leg, it was more than just giving the players the belief and saying the right things. Solksjaer was constantly tweaking the system to ensure United got the result.
He recognized that United was the inferior side so he made United hard to beat. These are tactics that Jose Mourinho had used. There was no difference. Unlike in other big games this season in England where they sat back, United had no attacking threat at all aside from a brief spell after the second goal.
They were clinical and fortunate at the same time that PSG gifted them the goals. At this level, the slightest mistake is punished and that was apparent here. PSG despite spending so much on building a team to strongly challenge for the Champions League had once again failed to qualify beyond the second round. They have not got further than the quarter-final stage in this competition.
As for United, this is the first time in 5 years that they have made it past the second round stage. Had United exited the tournament in the second round with this performance, I will not be disappointed. Last season, against an inferior team like Sevilla, United showed no ambition to attack and win. They were ultimately knocked out due to their lack of ambition.
One year on, at the same stage against a strong opponent, United produced a defensive performance but got the luck they needed to qualify. United was fated to win this and qualify. This might be as good as it gets for United in Europe.
The experience of having overturned a deficit against a top team to qualify will serve the team well. It might strengthen their resolve and belief for what is to come for the rest of the season. Let’s hope that the injured players are able to return soon to lend a helping hand to the team. After PSG, United now face another tough one, away to Arsenal, a 6 pointer for the Champions League positions.
Solksjaer will now face the tough task of bringing the players down to earth after that high. United of old was always about taking one game at a time, leaving the one already played behind and moving on. That is what Solksjaer needs to drill into the team.