OLD TRAFFORD, MANCHESTER – Perhaps this correction was always coming. The margins were small. When it mattered PSG had Kylian Mbappé. That’s all any team ever needs, a player so good there is no answer.
Fate’s recall of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to Old Trafford invited the obvious reflections on events 20 years ago. Those were the days when United had the edge in quality and class. Here those elements belonged to PSG.
Angel Di Maria, a rank failure in a red shirt, was back to his Real Madrid best here. Despite oodles of nasty abuse and hurled bottles Di Maria offered the composure and accuracy United could not muster in their best players, making both PSG goals in a decisive seven-minute burst early in the second half.
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Presnel Kimpembe was the beneficiary for the opener ghosting in at the far post with an emphatic volleyed finish. Mbappe made the most of Di Maria’s crossing ability with the second, his pace taking him clear of the United defence to double PSG’s advantage. So in two moments of searing clarity PSG undid United’s youthful urgency, exposing it for what it is, insufficient in this company.
United players exposed
This was effectively a brutal report not so much on the progress of Solskjaer as coach but on how far his players have to travel to acquire genuine ballast at the highest level. United were not helped by first-half injuries to Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial, but in truth neither had made the kind of impact required of genuine difference-makers in this company.
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The night finished on even more difficult terms for United with the loss of Paul Pogba in added time to a red card for a second bookable offence. He will now miss the return in three weeks’ time.
This was old European money over new, United making the most of their heritage and global reach to keep pace with the sovereign wealth funds driving the 21st century market. Injury denied PSG three of their signature commodities, Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Thomas Meunier, though with a rosta rammed with high-end international talent they hardly looked short.
PSG’s failure to advance beyond the quarter-finals of this competition is the mystery Thomas Tuchel was hired to solve. The match set off at helluva gallop, United trying to make up for the lost European years by smothering PSG in Solskjaer-fired enthusiasm. PSG felt the full force of a European night under northern lights at Liverpool in the group stage. Perhaps they knew what was coming. This match was never going to be settled via ambush but by poise and cool heads.
Defence into attack
Di Maria reminded United of what he once offered them only in glimpses with a clever curving effort in the opening 10 minutes. Marcus Rashford responded by warming the hands of Gianluigi Buffon from an oblique angle. Neither team appeared overawed, which for United in particular was a necessary feature of the psychological landscape.
The sense of purpose and belief coursing through Old Trafford these days was reflected in United’s willingness to take the ball in tight areas and to turn defence into attack with aggression as well as pace. One Pogba gallop left white shirts in twisted heaps and Tuchel screaming demented protests from the touchline. In another lightening break Lingard did everything right except weight the final pass correctly to Martial.
The half was almost 30 minutes old before there was any significant sighting of Mbappe. When it came he turned Victor Lindelof to dust down the right and within a minute missed the game’s clearest opening after Julian Draxler set him free in the box. The game was fast and furious now. Mbappe drew a yellow card for Ashley Young, who was forced into WWE defending to defuse the missile as it burned past him down the left.
The first half ended with PSG beginning to assert their greater experience and composure. Those elements were to the fore immediately after the break with a goal that owed as much to United’s soft centre as PSG’s prowess. Di Maria’s cross ought not to have troubled United’s six-footers yet it sailed over the lot of them on to the outstretched boot of Kimpembe. Goal.
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Seven minutes later Di Maria picked out Mbappe with a cross from the left, or rather Mbappe picked out the cross, racing beyond the lunging feet of Eric Bailly to slam the ball past David De Gea. The life drained out of United’s challenge. De Gea made two saves to keep out Mbappe and Di Maria that should have seen PSG double their lead.
This was new territory for United. Reeling in a two-goal deficit against Burnley is one thing, PSG in Europe another. United rediscovered their shape to a degree, the crowd urging them on. PSG simply took a breath and absorbed the threat, looking very good doing so.