No longer the underdogs?
When the draw was made for the last 16 of this year’s Champions League, Manchester United’s drawing of Paris Saint Germain did very little to boost most fans’ hopes of progressing deeper into the competition. The two sides’ domestic form could hardly be any more contrasting. PSG were (and still are) dominating Ligue 1 as always whilst Manchester United were floundering in sixth place in the Premier League, looking like their only way into Europe’s most prestigious competition next season would be a repeat of the Europa League heroics in Jose Mourinho’s debut season.
Fast forward a couple of months and a lot changed this side of the French Channel. Since Mourinho’s departure and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s subsequent appointment, the Reds have gone from strength to strength, climbing back into the Champions League spots in the league for the first time since August and looking capable of beating anyone on their day. What would’ve been a daunting run of fixtures a few months ago is now, one again, viewed as an exciting challenge and opportunities to set records straight.
Now, as Tuesday night’s first leg at Old Trafford rapidly approaches, the sharp uptick in form for United combined with a mini injury crisis for the French champions has led to many regarding Solskjaer’s side as the favourites to progress. It has been well documented that PSG boss Thomas Tuchel will be without world superstar Neymar, but he now has further issues in the absence of the Brazilians’ attacking partner, Edinson Cavani and Belgium right back, Thomas Meunier.
Admittedly, Tuchel’s squad is blessed with other dangerous talents so they cannot be taken lightly. Their likely attacking trio of Kylian Mbappe, Julian Draxler and former red, Angel Di Maria is still incredibly strong. Thankfully, though, Manchester United have a fully fit batch of attacking players that could give most defences across Europe a problem or two.
A couple of those attacking talents likely to be tasked with giving the PSG defence nightmares were in scintillating form at the weekend down at Craven Cottage, as Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial showed their class once again to finish off Fulham before 25 minutes had even passed. It’s crazy to think, but had Mourinho still been in charge going into this knockout stage, neither would be sure of a place in the team but are now as crucial as most felt they could and should be. In fact, both found themselves on the bench for both of last year’s last 16 games against Sevilla, and we all know how that went down.
Along with Pogba and Martial, there should be very few surprises expected when United’s teamsheet is released at 7pm on Tuesday night. Recent form dictates that the team almost picks itself unless rotation is necessary or injuries prevent certain selections. Solskjaer tried to dress the six changes made for the trip to Fulham as being standard, earned swaps as Romelu Lukaku, Juan Mata, Diogo Dalot and Chris Smalling all started but it would be a surprise to see any of those feature anywhere other than the bench.
The midfield trident of Pogba, Matic and Herrera is by far and away the best option United have and has been for some time now whilst Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford staying firmly put on the bench on Saturday surely tells us that they were resting to be fully refreshed for PSG.
Arguably, if it’s the case that Solskjaer goes all in and plays his strongest hand, there’s only one position that could be a cause for debate. Victor Lindelof appears to be fit and is in the squad so the only question that needs answering is just who partners him. It is unlikely to be Chris Smalling as he feels his way back from injury, so that just leaves Phil Jones and Eric Bailly with Marcos Rojo again omitted from the squad. In all fairness, both Jones and Bailly have rash errors in them, but both can put in great performances just as easily. If there’s anything that is going to sway it, it could come down to experience at this level, so we could see Phil Jones retain his place in the side.
Whichever team the United boss puts out on Tuesday night, there’s no doubt that the atmosphere at Old Trafford will be electric for what is one of the club’s biggest European nights in some time. You can rest assured that it won’t play out anything like the Sevilla embarrassment, too. Not whilst Ole’s at the wheel.
Confirmed Squad: De Gea, Romero, Grant; Dalot, Young, Jones, Smalling, Bailly, Lindelof, Shaw; Matic, Pogba, Herrera, Fred, Pereira, McTominay, Mata, Lingard; Rashford, Lukaku, Martial, Sanchez.
Score Prediction: Manchester United 2-1 Paris Saint-Germain