After a historic and stunning comeback to reach the Champions League quarterfinals, Manchester United look to solidify their top-four standing at the expense of their closest pursuers – Arsenal – at the Emirates on Sunday.
When former United striker and Molde coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over following the sacking of Jose Mourinho, no one really knew what to expect aside from the attempt to return to the attacking days of Sir Alex Ferguson, whom Solskjaer played under. The former Norway international has far exceeded expectations in what was supposed to be a caretaker role, to the point where it becomes more and more impossible for United not to hire him full-time – and soon.
Manchester United (17-7-5) became the first team of 35 in Champions League history to overturn a two-goal first-leg home deficit with a 3-1 victory Wednesday at French side Paris-St. Germain. Romelu Lukaku gave United an early lifeline with a second-minute goal and restored a one-goal deficit on the half-hour after PSG had grabbed an equaliser.
A controversial handball on PSG’s Prsenal Kimpembe – a call originated by VAR – in second-half stoppage time led to a penalty Marcus Rashford coolly converted past Gianluigi Buffon, lifting United to an improbable victory and instantly recalling the team spirit of the 1999 treble-winning side that lifted Ol’ Big Ears in dramatic fashion when Teddy Sheringham and Solskjaer scored in second-half stoppage time to beat Bayern Munich.
“We always believe, that’s the thing,” Solskjaer said. “We set out the plan. It wasn’t about having the ball and outplaying them. If give this team too much space and time, with (Kylian) Mbappe, we saw a few times in the first half when we missed our defensive shape and they were through us straight away.
“The plan was to get the first goal and be in the game with five or 10 minutes to go and we were. The belief in the boys was just what we hoped for. Of course, there was a great start. We set out a plan to get the first goal. We didn’t expect it after two minutes, but that made it more open for us. We wanted many goals in the game.”
The win was all the more stunning considering United played without the suspended Paul Pogba. Solskjaer made it a point to single out both Fred and Scott McTominay for their tireless work in the midfield to maintain United’s high press, with the players providing yet another example of the belief he has instilled in the players since his arrival – they have one loss in 17 matches (14-2-1) and are unbeaten in 12 (10-2-0) in league play.
“Fred – that was probably his breakthrough for us. You can see why we’ve signed him. He’s got the mentality of a Brazilian international, he is a Brazilian international,” Solskjaer noted. “He gets on the ball, has no fear and no doubt whatsoever. He used to play in that system at Shakhtar (Donetsk) so it suited him and that’s why we signed him.”
Pogba will be back for this match, ready to further Lukaku’s current rich vein of goal-scoring – the Belgium international has three consecutive braces in all competitions and overtook Pogba for the overall team lead with 15 goals. Lukaku has only three goals in 16 lifetime matches versus Arsenal, but he set up goals by Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard in United’s 3-1 win at the Emirates in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Jan. 25.
Sanchez, though, will be sidelined for this match due to a knee injury suffered in last weekend’s 3-2 win over Southampton, and the ex-Gunners winger is expected to miss six weeks. With Tottenham’s loss to Southampton on Sunday, a win would move United level on points with the Spurs for third in the table.
As United have kicked on with Solskjaer, Arsenal (17-6-6) have endured fits and spurts of late under first-year manager Unai Emery. Despite the uneven play, they are still only one point behind United for fourth and one point better than London rivals Chelsea for fifth.
For the second time in as many rounds, the Gunners will have to overturn a deficit to advance in the Europa League. Unlike the round of 32 in which they only needed to overcome a 1-0 loss to BATE, Arsenal have much work to do after being outclassed 3-1 at Rennes on Thursday in the first leg of their round of 16 tie.
Arsenal played the final 49 minutes with 10 men after Sokratis received his second booking in a seven-minute stretch, and the Gunners could not make Alex Iwobi’s fourth-minute goal stand. They conceded the equaliser straightaway after Sokratis was sent off, and Nacho Monreal’s own goal tilted the match in the French side’s favour.
A late third added to the workload for the return encounter in London next week as Emery tries to win a fourth Europa League title after claiming three with Sevilla.
“The first 40 minutes I think we controlled, we scored and we didn’t concede good chances to them. But after this red card, it’s different,” Emery said post-match. “It’s more than we wanted and I think we can do better. But the result is for the first match and for the first 90 minutes.”
It was the second straight match Emery has seen one of his players sent off, with Lucas Torreira getting a straight red in last weekend’s draw versus north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur. The FA upheld the decision for the Uruguay international’s three-match ban, which will start in this contest and put pressure on Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka to shield Arsenal’s back line against United’s in-form attack.
The sides played to a chaotic 2-2 draw at Old Trafford in December, with Arsenal twice grabbing leads before being quickly pegged back by the hosts. Shkodran Mustafi and Anthony Martial scored four minutes apart in the first half, and Lingard canceled out an own goal by Marcus Rojo in a minute’s time after intermission.
United are unbeaten in their last four against Arsenal (3-1-0) in all competitions and have taken points in 14 of the last 17 meetings (9-5-3).
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Arsenal 1, Manchester United 2.