The second week of February is not one that would have immediately filled Manchester United fans with hope and excitement last December. More like complete dread and sheer fear.
Yet, suddenly, Red Devils fans are rejoicing. Wicked Jose Mourinho has almost been wiped from memories of supporters thanks to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s stupendous unbeaten run.
Of course, Paris Saint-Germain pose quite a different prospect and will surely provide a stern test – even if star man Neymar is unavailable.
Here, we look ahead to the game with our talking points.
JUST HOW WILL PSG COPE WITHOUT NEYMAR?
As much as fortunes have changed for United coming into the first leg, things have also flipped for PSG coach Thomas Tuchel – who will definitely be without Brazilian behemoth Neymar, ruled out via a broken metatarsal for 10 weeks.
To compound his misery, Edinson Cavani limped off during Saturday’s 1-0 win over Bordeaux at Parc des Princes, while right-back Thomas Meunier was also withdrawn late on.
There is something of a mini crisis in midfield to manage as well, with the that fact he was forced to move 35-year-old right-back Dani Alves into the middle of the park against Bordeaux. “We are no longer looking at Plan B, but Plan D,” Tuchel joked after the game.
Of course, all is far from lost. PSG still have Kylian Mbappe to call upon, while Marco Verratti’s timely return from injury provides a silver lining for Tuchel. The tenacious Italian played almost an hour at the weekend and is now in contention to start in Manchester.
They’re not exactly a one-man band without their brilliant Brazilian. Sure, they’re shorn of a sublime player. But his absence might actually help rather than hinder.
In the away game against Liverpool in the group stage for example, he was disappointingly subdued. In the return leg in Paris, meanwhile, despite his goal, which ultimately turned out to be the winner in a 2-1 triumph, it was his unnecessary showboating and childish histrionics – that have so often overshadowed his undeniable brilliance – that his performance was most memorable for.
SOLSKJAER’S LITMUS TEST?
When United pulled PSG out of the hat on December 17, it’s fair to say the majority of fans were not anticipating a very merry Christmas.
They’d just seen their side torn apart at the home of their most hated rivals, Liverpool. In the larger sense they were coming off the back of a wretched run of results including just two wins in seven games.
Fast forward nearly two months and the club is almost unrecogniseable from the miserable mess it had been rendered by moody Mourinho. They are in the midst of an impressive 11-game unbeaten run under Solskjaer – including 10 wins – and all of a sudden hope abounds that by season’s end, trophies could be added to the swollen Old Trafford trophy cabinet that is nevertheless in need of a bit of replenishing.
United’s players must feel like they possess superpowers at the moment. And despite all their progress under Solskjaer, they certainly require all their star powers to combine if PSG are to be pulverised and the last eight of the Champions League blasted into for the first time in five years.
But unlike under Mourinho, when they may have feared the world was coming to an end, Solskjaer’s superheroes will certainly believe they can destroy all powerful PSG.
FRENCH CONNECTION CAN FRIGHTEN PSG
Speaking of having a good thing going, Frenchmen Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial have been two of the main protagonists behind the Red Devils’ resurgence.
This reached a crescendo on Saturday when the duo combined to conjure all three goals as Fulham were flung aside at Craven Cottage.
Pogba received Martial’s pass to rifle United ahead before Martial made it 2-0, embarked on a mesmeric, mazy run that was reminiscent of his first foray into English football when he scored that stunning debut goal against Liverpool at Old Trafford.
World Cup-winner Pogba sealed the points with his second – United’s third – from the penalty spot to rubber stamp the fact that he is in red-hot form.
Eight goals have been plundered by Pogba in the 10 games he has featured during United’s unbeaten run of 11 (he did not feature in the third round FA Cup win over Reading). He has scored twice in three of those games, while his goals have also been coupled with five assists and providing fans with a general sense that they are watching a player finally deserving of the tag, the Premier League’s most expensive player.
Martial had played well under Mourinho but he is someone who will surely revel in a more joyful and nurturing environment.
His goals against Fulham and Cardiff were devastating and provide a sliver of just what the 23-year-old is capable of. We all know about Pogba’s panache but United fans still feel like there are plenty of layers to Martial than can be peeled back.
When you add Marcus Rashford into this menacing mix, United possess a truly terrifying trio that can torment the Ligue 1 juggernauts.
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