Oh, Ole. As the second half kicked off at Old Trafford on Wednesday there were three possible outcomes confronting Ole Gunnar Solskjær as he surveyed his midfield. First, Fred would be sent off almost immediately for a second yellow card. Second, Fred would be sent off almost immediately for a straight red card. And third, Fred would be sent off a bit later for any combination of the above.
There was something oddly admirable in Solskjær's ability to defy this, to stare down the fates. But it didn't help his team very much, in a game where his abrasive midfield and fast-breaking attack had briefly threatened to overwhelm Paris Saint-Germain.
That Manchester United ended up losing 3-1 was only partly down to the manager's failure to act. It was also a function of Neymar's brilliance, the best player on the pitch either side of some grade A theatrics. But still, this was a failure to read the room, the player, the energy of the game.
The first moment of Fred red redemption came with 21 minutes gone, as United's midfield fulcrum somehow avoided being sent off for leaning his forehead into Leandro Paredes in familiar angry-stag motion. Paredes performed a classic dynamited-chimneystack collapse in return, a move that is generally rewarded with a red card.
Bloom of Neymar
The referee, Daniele Orsato, resisted the urge. Incorrectly perhaps, although this kind of red often seems overly cinematic. In any case Fed seemed to have short-term immunity. A few minutes later he stood on Paredes's toe as Paredes went through him, but was not punished.
Try, try again. With 70 minutes gone Fred finally achieved a successful expulsion, hurling himself into another challenge and exhausting even the patience of Orsato. Solskjær, alone among the entire sentient population of planet earth in being unable to see this coming, had the gall to protest against the decision.
Two minutes earlier, Marquinhos had put PSG 2-1 up, poking in from close range. With that the game was broken open and the stage clear for the other thing that had been happening – the irresistible bloom of Neymar – to take control of the end result.
What a wonderful, maddening footballer he is. For the first 20 minutes the world’s most expensive player was shark-like and beautifully focused, spinning about in a fluid No 10 role. He kept his feet. He ran off a blow to the knee. And he scored after five minutes with a supreme finish after fine work from Killian Mbappé.
Three things made the goal. First, Neymar dropped deep and pirouetted, laying off the ball in one movement. Then came a thrilling high-speed sidestep from Mbappé as he sprinted right at heart of the defence. Scott McTominay seemed to dematerialise, vanishing into Mbappé’s aura. The shot was deflected, bouncing across towards Neymar. He had time to wait, coil his body, then lash a first-time shot past David de Gea.
Neymar was a level above in those early moments, moving with a wonderful clarity, and not wasting his time in fripperies and jinks.
PSG broke after a United attack and Neymar took the ball in his stride so smoothly it looked like an optical illusion, a glitch in the game. He was barrelling along, possibilities swirling, a defence in retreat. Imagine a Neymar who only did this. Imagine the shadow career where he allows himself to be nothing more than a high-class predator.
At which point, enter: Bad Neymar. This was a credit to Solskjær, and to McTominay, whose job it was to offer some disruption. McTominay fouled Neymar three times in two minutes before half-time. It is an excellent tactic against a star player with all the extreme big-match focus of a toddler on a sugar high, a grand talent who has measured out his career in forward rolls, who still collapses into a childish funk at the slightest provocation.
Tides of this game
United pressed back and found a weak spot of their own. Anthony Martial made the break, Aaron Wan-Bissaka played a smart pass, and Marcus Rashford's shot was deflected in off Danilo.
For a while Neymar disappeared, McTominay following him around like a prison guard. United had their chance to win the game. Cavani hit the bar with a wonderful chip, executed with mind-bending precision at a full-speed sprint.
Tomas Tuchel reacted in the moment, rejigging his team and insisting his front three stay high up the pitch. As Fred came and went Neymar had already refocused. For all the distractions, he has a parallel hunger to keep running to the end.
Neymar was relentless in the closing minutes. He scored PSG’s third and also started the move with a slaloming run past the Harry Maguire-shaped carved mahogany armoire at the heart of United’s defence, before running 70 yards to apply the finish.
Almost but not quite for United and for Solskjær. The best managers are masters of these details, with a habit of spotting them before, not half an hour after, everyone else in the ground. That window to read the tides of this game came and went. Tuchel spotted his. Neymar’s brilliance did the rest. – Guardian