United provide a night of laughter, fun, and pure giddy pleasure

United were outsiders, daytrippers: what a change from losing joylessly to Sevilla

Manchester United’s Brazilian midfielder Fred celebrates with his teammtes. Photograph: Getty Images

Manchester United’s Brazilian midfielder Fred celebrates with his teammtes. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Whatever substance Marcus Rashford’s spleen, guts, backbone and other vital parts are made from, Manchester United’s official industrial concrete partner would be well-served setting about trying to replicate its precise unbreakable formula.

With 90 minutes gone, and with Manchester United 2-1 up and a VAR-assisted penalty kick away from eliminating the home side, the Paris Saint-Germain players gathered around the referee, stamped at the edge of the penalty spot, sniped at Rashford, and did everything in their power to create some turbulence. Rashford just looked down and waited, ball in hands.

Behind him there was a brilliant little moment of sub-drama. With the referee’s back turned, Leandro Paredes wandered into the area pointing and shouting, creating another diversion. Before he could get to Rashford a stocky figure in United’s prawn-salad away shirt came racing across to intercept, pushing Paredes in the chest, backing him up.

Get in there, Fred! Fred the outcast, too meek for the Premier League, bullying a beefy Argentinian out of the area to give his mate space to breathe in all that noise.

United had already done something extraordinary. It wasn’t just that they were beaten 2-0 in that first leg at Old Trafford. They had been shredded by the speed and movement of Kylian Mbappé, a finished, ready-to-go world-class player presented here with the most callow of opponents on home turf.

And so to that ending. How did we get here? It was fitting United were led to the moment by their own front two. Romelu Lukaku was an exhilarating presence alongside Rashford. He scored twice, won headers, pressed Thiago Silva ragged, and pulled United through the dark times when they looked to be drowning in the navy-blue tide.

His opening goal came after two minutes. Thilo Kehrer played a dopey pass into his own half, Lukaku eased away from the cover, took the ball wide of Gianluigi Buffon with a heavy touch, then slid in to finish from a tight angle. It looked like a Sunday League goal but a great Sunday League goal executed by elite-level footballers.

From the United end there was a strange sound, something that was closer to a laugh than an outright cheer. And for all the excitement this was the dominant note of this win: not grit and fire but laughter, fun, and pure giddy pleasure.

For United it was mission impossible but Solskjaer had been smiling when he made this prematch comments. And in practice there was always a kind of lightness to the day and around a game that did feel at times like a bit of a blague. This has been Solskjær’s triumph at United. Football has felt like something carefree, full of adventure, a place to shoot for the moon.

In the bars around the ground before kick-off the Parisians sat beneath their posed portraits of Edi and Ney and Kylian, an iconography of nation-state sporting ambition, while the red shirts sang, “Na-na-na-nana-na-na-na, Victor Lindelöf”, to the tune of Baby Give it Up. United as outsiders, daytrippers: what a change from losing joylessly to Sevilla this time last year.

It worked on the pitch, too. The United XI were basically what was left by injury and suspension. They started in a classic 4–4–2. Juan Bernat equalised almost immediately. And for a quarter of a game United were hammered 1-1, torn apart 1-1, eviscerated 1-1. PSG made 310 accurate passes to United’s 49 in that time. It took 21 minutes for Ashley Young just to have a touch.

From somewhere they went back in front before half-time. It was a gift from Buffon, who fumbled Rashford’s low punted shot, and then watched as Lukaku clipped the rebound past him. United’s end erupted with that same kind of gleeful delirium, while on the near side Thomas Tuchel ran to his bench and performed a wincing gesture with his arms across his anorak, like a man taking a bullet to the guts in a John Wayne western.

And so fast-forward to that loopy ending, a moment when the rain seemed to go back up into the sky, the moon twirled around the stand, the home fans howled and Rashford stood still then shuffled up to the ball.

The penalty had been given for handball, a call that seemed consistent with others given this season but which will seem harsh to some. There was no arguing with the execution, a wonderful penalty kick smashed with an angry precision past Buffon.

Solskjær, the master of quietly insistent positivity, had created the stage for this. It is a significant feat whatever happens from here, a run to the quarter-finals sealed by a night when football felt like something full of noise and fury but still also light and fun; and where it seemed just as easy to seize the moment as it is to let it go.

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