Bravo, Manchester United. Against the odds, and against the backdrop of an improbable upset, the United Front stormed and ransacked the Parisien peace when no one was looking.
Everyone became wide-eyed and wide-mouthed as United pulled off one of those very special comebacks in their 3-1 steal at the home of Paris Saint-Germain, who must think that this European hoodoo is here to stay.
In the last few years, not many teams have seen the realities of the Champions League as much as PSG. In 2017, it was the brilliance of Barcelona; last year, Real Madrid taught them a lesson in both legs. Now, Ole Gunnar Solskjær and his band of United fledglings and misfits stole the show in a way that we’ve seen before.
United seem to love a European night. 1999 is the best example of such determination and spirit, the sort of qualities in a team that want to make good in competitions such as these. Without Solskjær, the treble wouldn’t have been possible. Without him in Paris, would United have pulled this off? He was the difference maker once again.
And again, the Video Assistant Referee saw it fit to intervene and give us one of those moments that may be talked about for years to come. Presnel Kimpembe will feel aggrieved, and Romelu Lukaku’s words of consolation at the end may or may not do the Frenchman any good, but the truth of the matter is that VAR will have its controversies.
It must’ve known that United are made for nights like this, where the odds were firmly stacked against them in ways seen in 1999, or indeed in Turin in the group stage when José Mourinho was still around, hand cupped to his ear, taking in the ire of the Juventus following.
No ears were cupped here, but United don’t have a manager like that anymore; Solskjær seems to be taking all of this in his stride. Before the game, he had talked about a “plan”, one that needed to be executed almost perfectly for them to stand a chance. “If everyone can do their jobs properly… then anything can happen.”
It meant that Chris Smalling had to keep his Spidey senses on red alert with Kylian Mbappe. Romelu Lukaku had to be clinical in front of goal. Fred and Scott McTominay had to disrupt Marco Veratti’s rhythm.
And bar Smalling’s lapse in concentration for the first goal, helped by Eric Bailly’s ball-watching and Juan Bernat’s instinctive finish, the game plan worked. United were vulnerable to PSG’s attacks and fluidity, but pounced on their counterparts’ own flaws and punished them without remorse.
It’s hard to believe that this has happened. That PSG have found themselves on the floor, heads in hands and reliving the same story like a broken record, Groundhog Day Part 3.
Maybe this is how it’s supposed to be – that their European project never comes to fruition. Neymar left Barcelona to come and be the one to take them there. Mbappe, too, joined the movement. Gigi Buffon came in with all his experience and nous.
But, for all of their money moves and big-name personalities, there seems no end in sight for their Champions League nightmares. PSG are a good team, with a very good coach in Thomas Tuchel. We’ve seen them when they’re at their very best – Liverpool and United would be the first ones to tell you. Bayern Munich would follow suit last season, and Barcelona – in the first leg – before that.
But then come those ill-fated games where it all breaks down, a lapse here and a mistake there. Thilo Kehrer and Buffon were the culprits this time around, two parallels in terms of experience at this level.
This could be Buffon’s last hoorah – Marcus Rashford made sure of that – and when the ball fell to Lukaku, who now has six goals in his last three competitive games, Buffon’s worst fears must’ve flashed through his mind.
For United, the quarter finals lie in wait, an utterance bewildering to the tongue, but a reality that must be approved. Underdogs, they are, but from now there is nothing to lose. They would be forgiven for wanting to be the top dog at this stage, but the reality is that there’s still a lot of work to do if they want to reach such lofty heights.
But, as Rashford tapped Mbappe on the head like a man consoling his brother, there’s no talk of projects and flirting with Europe’s elite. For United, Solskjær continues to lead them in the right direction, the players are happy and the supporters are cheering their names in dizzying bewilderment.
European nights, such as these, are what United live for, and PSG dread. The project must wait another year.