If Ole Gunnar Solskjær has not already secured himself the job on a full-time basis, surely the announcement must be coming soon after the scenes here in Paris, an almost improbable comeback and a clear statement of intent from this once-mighty club, after everything they have been through since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, that they still want and deserve to be taken seriously at elite level.
It matters not that, over the two legs, PSG looked the more competent side for long spells. Romelu Lukaku’s two first-half goals opened all sorts of possibilities. The problem for United was that they also let one, in between, but then came the dramatic finale when the Slovenian referee, Damir Skomina, was alerted to a possible handball from Presnel Kimpembe. The video replays went in United’s favour and Rashford keld his nerve brilliantly to beat Gianluigi Buffon from 12 yards.
No side in the history of the European Cup has gone through after losing 2-0 at home in the first leg. Plus Solskjær had the added disadvantage of being without 10 players through suspension, injuries or illness. Yes, PSG were missing Neymar, whereas Edinson Cavani was restricted to a substitute’s role, but there could be no doubt which side was weakened the most, personnel-wise.
Fred, Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira would have been substitutes, at best, if Solskjær’s options were not so restricted. Here, those three players formed three-quarters of United’s midfield on a night when there were four academy graduates – Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes, James Greenwood and James Garner – on the away side’s bench. Nice recognition for the club’s youth system, but when was the last time, if ever, United went into such a key night with the shirt numbers of their substitutes totalling 240?
Solskjær, however, had made the point that if United could score a goal it might dramatically unnerve their opponents. Lukaku’s first goal of the night was timed at one minute and 51 seconds. His second came just before the half-hour mark and on both occasions there was a significant error from one of PSG’s players to present him with the scoring opportunity. Thilo Kehrer’s misplaced pass led to the first one. Buffon, of all people, made the mistake for the next one, spilling Rashford’s swirling long-range shot, and those were moments that encouraged the belief that PSG might be vulnerable, after all.
What Lukaku could not do was stop the near-unremitting noise from the Collectif Ultras, PSG’s most boisterous supporters, amid the kind of din that made it easy to understand why Parc des Princes is described locally as the caisse de résonance (the ’box of sound’). More importantly, the response from Thomas Tuchel’s players was swift and decisive when they found themselves behind inside the first couple of minutes. They were level in the 11th minute and, after that, the paradox of the first half is that there were parts of it when Uefa’s number-crunchers calculated PSG had 87% of the possession. Incredibly, it was not until the 22nd minute that Ashley Young had his first touch of the ball – and that was a tackle.
Not that Young was alone at that stage when it came to the list of United players who were finding it difficult to cope with the speed and movement of Kylian Mbappé, Ángel di María and Dani Alves in particular. Young was operating as a right-sided midfielder, many years after that stopped being his best position, and his switch from defence meant Eric Bailly filling in at right-back. Bailly is a centre-half by trade and lost Juan Bernat when PSG’s attacking left-back strode forward to turn in the equaliser from Mbappé’s perfectly-weighted pass across the six-yard area.
For a while, it seemed as though Solskjær’s players might capitulate. Yet they had known since the opening exchanges that they could hurt PSG, too, and when they did break forward there were openings. Lukaku’s first goal was a classic piece of centre-forward play, latching on to Kehrer’s mistake, holding off Presnel Kimpembe, then taking the ball wide of Buffon and sliding in his finish from a difficult angle. The second goal was brilliant anticipation. Buffon’s goalkeeping was poor, attempting to hold a shot from Rashford that moved dramatically in the air, and Lukaku was alert, pouncing on the loose ball to score again from close range.
If nothing else, that meant there could be no extra time. One team was going to win it after 90 minutes and, for United, they went into the second half knowing that another goal would put them in command. PSG, meanwhile, knew they could probably settle it with one more of their own and, shortly before the hour mark, only an offside flag ruled out Di María’s chip over David de Gea. The game was delicately poised. Still, PSG produced the classier football. Yet United, who lost Bailly to a first-half injury, held the lead. They had already shown they could get through the home defence and the night was still full of possibilities.
PSG were still pouring forward, Bernat striking the post, but Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelöf were among United’s heroes and at the final whistle every United player was off on their victory run to the away supporters.