Manchester United revival runs into PSG reality check
Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side well beaten by French champions
Paris Saint-Germain striker Kylian Mbappe celebrates scoring his team’s second goal during the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 football match against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images
Manchester United 0 PSG 2
For Manchester United, perhaps it was a reality check, a reminder of their imperfections and how tough it can be at the highest level of European football. This was the night Ole Gunnar Solskjær could not find any of the precious magic that has seen him pass every other test with distinction. Outscored, outpassed and outsung – they were well beaten and it will need something truly remarkable if they can save themselves at Parc des Princes in three weeks’ time.
Unfortunately for Solskjær, who could really see them pulling off that kind of escapology act on the evidence of this tie? Paris Saint-Germain took a while to realise they were the superior side but once the penny dropped, the imbalance throughout the second half was considerable, culminating in Paul Pogba’s late red card for his second bookable challenge.
The goals arrived in a seven-minute spell, first from Presnel Kimpembe and then Kylian Mbappé, and there were parts of the second half when the soundtrack was provided by “olés” from the away end
After a difficult start, Angel Di María had an influence on both goals against his former club. Mbappé’s goal was a demonstration of his rare gifts, contrasting sharply with Marcus Rashford’s ineffectiveness at the other end, and it was unusual, strange even, to see United looking so passive after everything that has improved under Solskjær’s tenure. United might be better in the second leg, but so might PSG on their own ground, with the backing of their vociferous fans.
Ligue 1’s leaders had accumulated 101 goals from their previous 34 games this season. Yes, the absence of Edinson Cavani and Neymar in particular was bound to be a debilitating setback. Yet a front three of Mbappé flanked by Di María and Julian Draxler still posed its own threats and it was surprising at times that, until the second half, the away team did not attack with more urgency and directness.
Mbappé had, after all, demonstrated with one jet-heeled burst of pace in the first half that he would have no trouble out-sprinting Victor Lindelöf. Or, indeed, any player in a red shirt, even with a head start. The issue for PSG was whether they could find the right pass to exploit that phenomenal speed and on the one occasion that happened in the first half Mbappé went wide of David de Gea but could not get his shot on target.
Otherwise, it was strange to see a team with PSG’s reputation being so lax with their final pass once they had put together an encouraging move. Mbappé flickered only sporadically and there were parts of the match when Di María’s occasional carelessness must have reminded the home crowd about some of Argentinian’s more undistinguished performances in United’s colours during the Louis van Gaal era.
Di María is not remembered fondly here and the crowd took a malicious sense of pleasure when Ashley Young bundled him into the advertising hoardings. Thomas Tuchel could be seen advancing to the touchline to berate Di María at times, and at others for not being more accurate with the ball. That, perhaps, is worth bearing in mind before the return leg on March 6th: PSG can be much more dangerous in possession.
Solskjær would like to think the same applies to his own players because there were too many occasions for his liking that his team had the chance to break only to be let down by a moment of careless play. Anthony Martial, in particular, found it difficult to get into the game. He has been a renascent figure during United’s improvement but he was on the edges of this game for too long.
This was the first time, perhaps surprisingly, that Gianluigi Buffon has ever faced United at Old Trafford throughout his long career but apart from a beautiful piece of footwork from Pogba to elude Kimpembe, the home team struggling to create any real openings during the opening 45 minutes.
Jesse Lingard had to go off with a hamstring injury towards the end of the half and Martial’s night was also ended prematurely, coming off at the interval because of a muscular problem. Alexis Sánchez came on for Lingard, with Juan Mata replacing Martial, and that meant United losing some of their speed on the counterattack.
The most revealing statistic at half-time, with only five efforts at goal, was that no other game in this season’s Champions League has had fewer first-half shots. Solskjær must have dearly wanted an improvement from his side after the restart but it was the French champions who began brightly, culminating in the goal from Kempembe to put them in command.
By that stage an argument could be made that Kempembe should no longer have been on the pitch. He had already been booked for a challenge on Martial but the Italian referee, Daniele Orsato, had given him the benefit of the doubt after another challenge on Lingard and then one on Rashford, both of which could have warranted a second yellow card.
Kempembe made the most of his fortune after De Gea had turned Mbappe’s downward header around his post for a corner. Di María swung the ball over and perhaps Nemanja Matic thought De Gea was coming to collect the ball. He wasn’t – and Kempembe’s volley flew into the roof of the net.
After that, PSG went for the kill. On the hour mark, the ball went forward through Juan Bernat and Di María again. The ball into the centre was weighted perfectly and Mbappe had the speed and determination to get between Lindelof and Eric Bailly to apply the decisive touch. – Guardian