In the space of eight weeks, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had got everyone at Manchester United dreaming again. But it took Paris Saint-Germain less than eight minutes in the second half at Old Trafford on Tuesday to leave the Norwegian hoping for a miracle if he is to lead United into the Champions League quarter-finals.
Solskjaer’s 10 wins and one draw in his opening 11 matches having succeeded Jose Mourinho, along with injuries to key PSG stars Neymar and Edinson Cavani, had made United the favourites here in so many eyes.
Yet Angel Di Maria and Kylian Mbappe conspired to upset the form book and bring Solskjaer and United crashing back down to earth. The Argentine’s two assists in the blink of an eye and the Frenchman’s clinical finish on the hour were killer blows the home side were never going to be able to overcome. Paul Pogba’s late red card for a ridiculous challenge on Dani Alves only served to make the mountain harder to climb.
United had again gone with a game plan of inviting pressure and exploiting space on the break, and it had moderately positive results in the first half without ever looking like truly taking PSG apart. In those first 45 minutes they just didn’t make the most of good positions in which they found themselves.
Besides Pogba’s near-post shot after a fine burst down the right they seemed to make all the wrong decisions when it mattered. Jesse Lingard dragged a pass behind Anthony Martial as they broke with two on two, while Marcus Rashford checked his stride at the vital moment just as he was destined to receive a Luke Shaw cut-back.
At the other end they were benefiting from the fact that PSG were too often leaving Mbappe to fend for himself, hoping for a bit of magic from the World Cup winner rather than putting numbers around him to keep United on their toes.
While the losses of Martial and Lingard to injury forced a rethink, there shouldn’t have been the drop-off in performance which followed as PSG started to turn the screw. With Alexis Sanchez dropping too deep and Juan Mata unable to add the pacey edge on the right, United seemingly had no outlet and the French champions made the most of their chance to gain some superiority.
After Mbappe had tested David de Gea for the first time, Di Maria swung in a killer cross from the corner flag which saw Presnel Kimpembe get in front of the flat-footed Nemanja Matic to turn home.
And less than eight minutes later it was twice as bad for United. Di Maria got free on the left and delivered a crisp ball to Mbappe, who was able to side-foot home after Eric Bailly had failed to reach the Argentine’s pass.
Everybody had been expecting a wake-up call sooner or later, but this one came on the biggest of stages. It could have got even worse had it not been for a strong hand from De Gea as Mbappe blazed his way beyond the United back line.
Pogba then unsurprisingly saw red after connecting with Dani Alves’ knee with a late, high challenge in the dying stages. He had had a frustrating night up against Marquinhos, and his absence from the return leg will hardly help matters.
One black mark against his name will not be the end of Solskjaer as a contender for the permanent gig at Old Trafford, but ultimately this result came about from United’s inability to adapt to new realities once Plan A didn’t work and their personnel had been forced to change.
There is still a second leg to come, of course, but it will take a huge amount of character to get out of this hole in Paris on March 6.
No team has ever managed to progress following a 2-0 home defeat in the first leg of a Champions League knockout phase, meaning Ole Gunnar Solskjaer really does need to produce a miracle.