It has been seven weeks since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer arrived at Old Trafford and revived a listless Manchester United side, earning plaudits and momentum towards possibly being the storied club’s next full-time manager.
How he fares in the Champions League, starting with Tuesday’s round of 16 first-leg tie against injury-ravaged Paris-Saint Germain at Old Trafford, will go a long way in determining if he is the man going forward.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Solskjaer arguably rescued United from themselves after Jose Mourinho’s combative style and stubbornness in personnel choices had left the club languishing in sixth place and the bottom team on the totem pole of the Big Six. The former United striker and Norway international has yet to lose since being tapped to take over, winning all but one of his 11 matches as the club is still vying for trophies on three fronts.
“I don’t think we could be in a better frame of mind with the confidence we have and the form we are in,” Solskjaer said at Monday’s news conference. “The squad is very capable of winning against any opponent. I have been very pleased with the attitude. I said to the boys if we keep working every day, maybe we will surprise a few people.”
United are now fourth in the Premier League table, overtaking a sputtering Arsenal stride who have fallen off-rhythm after a splendid early season run and Chelsea, who are all out of sorts at the moment after a historic thrashing at the hands of United’s eternal rivals Manchester City.
Solskjaer’s club are coming off a professional 3-0 win at Fulham on Saturday, leaving the match done and dusted in the first half-hour as Anthony Martial set up Paul Pogba for a goal in the 14th minute before the French winger took off on a magnificent solo run nine minutes later.
Pogba added a second-half penalty, giving him a team-high 13 goals in all competitions, as he has been the linchpin in United’s turnaround after being given the freedom to roam forward Mourinho would not give. The World Cup winner has factored in four of United’s five goals in the last three matches and has eight goals in 10 matches since managerial switch.
“Paul is Paul – I think I’ve said that before. You know he has a huge amount of qualities,” Martial said as United’s designated player interviewee at Monday’s presser. “He’s one of the best midfielders in the world, as far as I’m concerned, and I think, at the moment, that is what he is showing. He’s showing that he’s one of the best midfielders in the world and I think that he’ll do even better over the next few matches and that’s going to be huge for us.”
Marcus Rashford, expected to lead the line in United’s 4-3-3 formation, has added six goals in his last eight matches. The England international will likely be flanked by Martial and Jesse Lingard, with Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez waiting in the wings.
On defence, the lone issue appears to be whether centre back Victor Lindelof will return to the first XI after being held out against Fulham due to a knock. The Sweden international — along with Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera — has been somewhat overlooked in United’s renaissance under Solskjaer, but Mbappe’s frightening pace is sure to put Lindelof in the cross-hairs of scrutiny at Old Trafford.
Paris-Saint Germain appear well on their way to a sixth Ligue 1 title in seven seasons, currently enjoying a 10-point advantage over Lille with two matches in hand through 24 rounds. But for this match, much is rightfully being made regarding who will not be available for Thomas Tuechel.
The list of the walking wounded starts with Neymar, who has also been ruled out for the return leg in three weeks’ time due to a broken foot. The absence of the Brasil international, who had a team-high five goals while drawing a staggering 34 fouls in the Champions League group stages, cannot be overstated as Les Parisiens will miss his pace and nous on the left flank.
Some could argue Neymar’s absence is addition by subtraction given PSG are more formidable in defence without the superstar. But that does not take into account the French side also being without fellow South American forward Edinson Cavani, who was forced off at halftime of Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Bordeaux with a thigh injury after converting a penalty.
The Uruguay international has a team-high 22 goals in all competitions, and between him and Neymar, Les Parisiens are missing 41 of their 93 goals on the season, or approximately 44 percent. The absences will put a tremendous burden on Mbappe, but Tuchel was keen to point out he and the club are going to do everything they can to make sure the France international simply plays his game and does not try to do more than asked of him.
“You can’t just place all of the burden and pressure on Kylian,” Tuchel said of the 20-year-old with 21 goals following his star turn in Russia in helping Les Bleus win the World Cup. “But we’re talking about Mbappe. He has his own qualities.
“It’s not really his job to replace Cavani and Neymar, and he can’t do all three things at the same time. He can’t be himself and the other two. He has to be free to play his game, to play with confidence and I want us to be capable to help him.
“[That means] to provide him with the right kind of support and passes. In my opinion, he needs to play with a good mindset, as it were. He needs to be positive and realise that he’s here, it’s part of his development. I think it’s the kind of moment when you really are able to develop as a player.”
The support and passes are mainly going to come from his two primary suppliers, Julian Draxler and Angel Di Maria. For the Argentina international, it is his first visit to Old Trafford since a failed £59.7 million move from Real Madrid to United lasted only for the 2014-15 season. He forced a move for approximately £44 million to PSG before the start of the 2015-16 season and has been a valued contributor with eight goals and a joint team-leading 10 assists in all competitions this term.
“I only stayed one year. It wasn’t the best period of my career, or they didn’t let me have my best time there,” Di María told radio station France Bleu according to The Times. “There were problems with the coach at the time. But, thanks to God, I was able to come to PSG and be myself again.”
“I was asking him some questions about Manchester United,” Draxler added to The Times. “I won’t tell you what he said but he will be ready for tomorrow. He’s a big player. He has a lot of respect for the club, there’s nothing terrible in what he said but it was between me and him.”
Behind Draxler and Di Maria, Tuchel got a welcome boost from Marco Verratti playing an hour Saturday after missing three weeks with an a sprained ankle suffered in PSG’s win over Guingamp on Jan. 19, but it will be interesting to see if he is fully match-fit. Still, Verratti has the ability to boss a midfield and will be a vital link-up between defence and attack as PSG seek at least one crucial away goal to bring back to Paris for the second leg next month.
”We have tradition, we play attacking football, we’re PSG and that’s how we’re used to playing, creating opportunities,” Tuchel said. “It’s in our DNA. That’s how we play. To change that is really tough, it’s difficult.
“Nevertheless, I’m sure there will be times tomorrow when we will be defending deeply, absolutely, because I imagine United are going to be very bold, they’re going to play a lot of attack-minded players so, yeah, I can see in this kind of match there will be times when we are going to have to play in a whole range of situations and we have to be at the top level throughout the game.”
Even with the absences of Neymar and Cavani — for this leg at least — there is still considerable pressure on Tuchel to navigate PSG through at least this round. Les Parisiens made round of 16 exits in the last two years and still have not reached the semifinals since being bought by the Qatar Sports Investment group in 2011. Their domestic dominance has yet to translate into European success, having been run out last year by current three-time holders Real Madrid and by Barcelona the year before that when Neymar and Lionel Messi combined for a famous overturning of a 4-0 first-leg deficit.
Per Bet365, Manchester United are slight 13/10 favourites to grab a win in this first leg, with PSG 9/4 underdogs to return across the Channel with a victory. The odds of the sides playing to a draw are 5/2, with 12/1 odds on a 0-0 scoreline that leaves everything to play for and 11/2 odds for a 1-1 draw that gives PSG a slight edge.
PSG are still favourites to progress through to the quarterfinals with 4/6 odds compared to United at 11/10.
Despite the firepower not accompanying PSG to Old Trafford, oddsmakers are still expecting goals to be scored, with 8/11 odds on the teams clearing 2.5 goals compared to 11/10 for under the threshold. There are 4/7 odds on both teams scoring at least once compared to 5/4 odds on either De Gea or Buffon to post a clean sheet.
Oddsmakers also seem unconcerned with PSG’s scoring burden falling upon Mbappe, who leads the line for first goal-scorers at 4/1. Despite not being likely to start, Lukaku is the top option for United and second overall at 5/1, followed by Rashford (11/2) and Martial (6/1). Pogba and Alexis Sanchez are another step back at 13/2, while one-time United winger Di Maria and Choupo-Moting are 17/2 options.
Mbappe is just below even money at 11/10 to score over the course of 90 minutes, while Lukaku is a 7/5 option to do likewise. Rashford slots in third at 8/5 and Martial is a 7/4 option. Sanchez and Pogba again are paired together, this time at 15/8, while Di Maria and Choupo-Moting are in tandem at 5/2.
PSG winger Draxler is a 10/3 option to score over 90 minutes, just behind Lingard (11/4).
There appear to be two significant numbers at play in this game: 1 and 30.
For the case of “1,” it is — can PSG score at least one away goal in this match to bring something positive back to Paris, or perhaps more optimistically, can the visitors hold United to one goal and have essentially everything to play for in the second leg regardless of the scoreline at Old Trafford?
PSG’s attack during group play was something to behold, totaling Champions League bests of 17 goals and 48 shots on target, narrowly edging out Manchester City in both categories. But a bigger takeaway for this match is what Les Parisiens have done when Neymar is not in the lineup.
PSG has gone 9-1-1 in matches without the Brasilian superstar while conceding just five goals in those contests. The 0.45 goals-against average is roughly half the 0.87 goals per game given up in the 23 matches Neymar played, but the trade off is PSG’s goals scored per game is almost one full goal more when he plays than when he does not (3.3-2.4).
The other number is based on the expectation this game will be played in 30-minute spurts of sorts. United are likely going to come out guns blazing and harass PSG all over the pitch, pressing high and trying to force their back lines into errors. Tuchel even conceded as much in his pre-match presser when he said there will be times PSG will be sitting back in defence.
That means Verratti may not be as inclined to push forward to join in attack, whether it be match management or him still not being 100 percent recovered from his ankle injury. Still, the middle 30 minutes of this match is when PSG likely will be in the ascendancy and try to hit United through the counter or send Mbappe into space to torment Lindelof and Jones.
The final 30 minutes, though, are where United could make hay. In having two standout attackers in Lukaku and Sanchez waiting to make contributions, the pair can challenge — in theory at least — a tired PSG backline and create opportunities to score. The pressure on United is not just to score, but score multiple goals with the expectation PSG will be heavy favourites in the second leg, even without Neymar.
Pogba and Martial have played against most of PSG’s players through Les Bleus enough to know some tendencies of some players and perhaps exploit that. Both Martial and Rashford have the pace to challenge that back line, though it is a half-step slower than Mbappe’s top-end, world-class speed.
How long Tuchel decides to hold PSG back could determine how this leg is played, whether it is more open like United would prefer in this contest or cagey with PSG content to hit on the counter. Either way, it does have the look of an entertaining clash of styles.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 2, Paris-Saint Germain 1.
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