Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows all about late Champions League heroics, but even he could not have scripted the Manchester United miracle that unfolded in Paris on Wednesday night.
The two-goal deficit from the first leg did not show the full extent of the challenge ahead. United, outclassed at Old Trafford two weeks ago, had travelled to the French capital with a list of absentees that stretched into double figures. Without Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Ander Herrera and the rest, their chances of progression looked even more remote.
But Solskjaer has brought back the belief. United’s late heroics against Southampton were fresh in the memory and so too was the Norwegian’s pre-match message. “It is never mission impossible,” Solskjaer had declared. “We are going to see players that are going to give their all. If we get nine or 10 at least playing up to the top standards, we’ve got a good chance.”
In the end, he got more than that. Romelu Lukaku was clinical, stunning the Parc des Princes into silence when he rounded Gianluigi Buffon to score the opener inside the first two minutes, then putting them back in front later in the first half after Juan Bernat had equalised. But there were outstanding performances all over the pitch.
Marcus Rashford set up Lukaku’s second, his swerving long-range effort forcing Buffon into a panicked parry, and his coolness when converting the decisive penalty – after a VAR delay that must have felt endless – summed up the bravery and boldness that Solskjaer has instilled in this team.
So too did the performances of United’s midfielders. Between them, Fred, Andreas Pereira and Scott McTominay had only made four Champions League starts all season, but against Marco Verratti, Angel Di Maria and the rest, they were outstanding. McTominay made more tackles than anyone else on the pitch. Fred led the way for ball recoveries.
Behind them, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof were even better in how they shackled Kylian Mbappe. The hosts were overwhelmingly dominant at times – particularly before makeshift right-back Eric Bailly was replaced by Diogo Dalot in the first half – but United’s centre-back pairing repelled almost everything.
In the seventh minute, Smalling could be seen hurling himself in front of an Mbappe shot from Di Maria’s cut-back. Soon after half-time, there was Lindelof, acrobatically cutting out another teasing Di Maria delivery with Dani Alves lurking menacingly over his shoulder.
Everybody played their part and it was a testament to United’s resilience and organisation that, despite dominating possession by almost 70 per cent in the second half, PSG only mustered three shots on goal. It might have been a different story had Mbappe not lost his footing when through on goal six minutes from time, but United had earned their luck.
It is to Solskjaer’s immense credit that squad players who have featured sparingly in the last few months were able to rise to the occasion, and it was fitting for youth to play such an important role in the victory too.
Solskjaer’s options were depleted to the point of naming five teenagers among his substitutes, but they were not simply there to make up the numbers. Amazingly, three of them were on the pitch when Rashford – an academy graduate himself, of course – stepped up to score the penalty.
In fact, it was Dalot’s shot that drew the handball from Presnel Kimpembe. Academy products Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood have a combined age younger than Buffon, but they too were in the thick of the celebrations at the final whistle having replaced Pereira and Ashley Young respectively.
The youthful make-up of the 11 players on the pitch at the final whistle was symbolic of the bright future that lies ahead of this Manchester United team, but it was also a night which evoked memories of their glorious past. The miracle in Paris will rank among Manchester United’s greatest European nights. Solskjaer masterminded this one from the dugout. – Sky Sports