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Manchester United need to be perfect to replicate famous Champions League win in Paris

Mark Critchley
·5-min read
Marcus Rashford hit a late winner last time Manchester United were in Paris (Getty Images)
Marcus Rashford hit a late winner last time Manchester United were in Paris (Getty Images)

You cannot re-write a love story, as the French saying goes, but Manchester United arrive in Paris hoping to do exactly that.

It is some 596 days since that dizzying, intoxicating 3-1 victory at the Parc des Princes which convinced United once and for all to go steady with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, turning their three-month fling into a committed long-term relationship.

Sadly, there was no honeymoon period to speak of - United lost eight of their remaining 12 games that season - and the hastiness to appoint Solskjaer on a permanent basis was something straight out of an all-night Las Vegas wedding chapel rather than a match made in the city of love.

A year and a half later, as Solskjaer closes in on 100 games in charge, overturning a 2-0 first-leg deficit and beating Paris Saint-Germain in their own backyard is still his greatest night and arguably his most impressive achievement. The challenge now is to repeat it.

The stakes are not nearly as high as they were in March of last year - with this just the first group stage match of United’s return to the Champions League, rather than the second leg of a knock-out tie - but it marks the start of a brutal run of fixtures that Solskjaer and his players must successfully negotiate.

An Old Trafford triple-header against Chelsea, RB Leipzig and Arsenal follows this Group H opener, then come Istanbul Basaksehir and Everton away. United will not be the overwhelming favourites to win any of their next six games. Lose the majority of them and Solskjaer will inevitably come under pressure.

At the same time, these are exactly the types of match-ups in which Solskjaer’s United typically excel. They have a clear blueprint for games which they are not expected to win - absorb pressure and counter-attack at speed - and they executed that plan to perfection on their last visit to the French capital.

Thomas Tuchel is expecting more of the same. The PSG head coach described United as “one of the best teams in Europe in offensive transitions” yesterday, after marvelling at the “super rapid” speed of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. “We have to try and stop all these fast breaks,” he stressed. “We've got to try and keep the ball.”

Can United do it all over again? If that is Solskjaer’s plan, they will need to be just as efficient in attack as they were 19 months ago. The three goals that night came from only five shots and each one was significant.

Marcus Rashford trains ahead of the trip to ParisGetty Images
Marcus Rashford trains ahead of the trip to ParisGetty Images

The first was Romelu Lukaku’s opener, set up by a wayward Thilo Kehrer backpass. The second was a Rashford shot from distance which Gianluigi Buffon spilled, allowing Lukaku to convert on the rebound. United’s fourth shot - the speculative effort from range by Diogo Dalot which brushed Presnel Kimpembe’s arm - arrived in the 90th minute. Their fifth and final attempt of the evening was Rashford’s decisive penalty.

What if just one of those bounces had not gone United’s way that night? What if either Buffon or Kehrer had avoided making a mistake? What if Kimpembe had not been penalised for handling a ball he was not even facing, as some argued he shouldn’t have been? Considering the collapse of form which followed, it is tempting to wonder whether Solskjaer would have still been appointed on a permanent basis.

But to focus solely on United’s fortune in attack does not tell the whole story.

Solskjaer salutes the travelling United fans last yearGetty Images
Solskjaer salutes the travelling United fans last yearGetty Images

Solskjaer’s one and only mistake that night was selecting Eric Bailly, who was disastrous as a makeshift right-back. PSG were rampant in the opening half hour, at one stage limiting United to just 12% possession, but once Bailly was replaced and Solskjaer found balance, his players were defensively excellent.

From then on, United barely gave PSG a sniff. Victor Lindelof was enjoying the spell of form which would establish him as a regular starter. Chris Smalling was a commanding presence. Fred and Scott McTominay - nothing more than fringe players under Solskjaer up to that point - proved that they could be trusted to play together as a protective midfield partnership.

McTominay described his memories of that night as “probably some of the best you’ll ever have on a football pitch” yesterday. “For us we want déjà vu.” For that, he and his team-mates will once again need to be at their very best out of possession as well as in it. Once again, they will need to be almost perfect.

The absence of Harry Maguire - who has not travelled due to an injury - may or may not help. Solskjaer’s captain returned to form in Saturday’s 4-1 win away at Newcastle United but he has been so erratic over the last few months, perhaps a rest will do him good.

Solskjaer said that Mason Greenwood - who made his senior United debut as a substitute in the 3-1 win - is unavailable this time around due to a “niggle”, despite images of him training at Carrington on Monday morning. A return to the Parc des Princes has also come too soon for Edinson Cavani, who is said to have been desperate to make his United debut against his former club.

But United’s numbers were depleted on their last visit too. It did not stop Solskjaer from engineering one of the most famous wins in the club’s recent European history and he will believe his players can do the same again.

And even if this trip proves to be far less memorable, even if United suffer defeat just as they embark on a most testing run of fixtures, even if you cannot re-write a love story after all, at least they’ll always have Paris.

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